Friday, December 31, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean Out – Links for Writers, New Year's Eve Edition

► Kindle books can now be loaned out to friends. Sounds a bit complicated, but I don't have a Kindle, so what do I know?

► Are you a fan of Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns)? His KH Foundation has accomplished so much for the people of Afghanistan. Find out more and sign up for the newsletter here.

► This writer learned a lot by not accomplishing a recent writing goal.

►The Pub Crawl at Beyond the Margins lists upcoming book publishing dates for fiction and literary nonfiction, and useful links for each. A great place for authors to publicize their impending pub dates, as well as for book and writing bloggers interested in covering those authors/books.

►Interesting thoughts from Nicola Morgan on voice.

► Tweet much? The old Twitter is fading out and you'd best be ready to deal with the new format and functions. Some good tips here.

► Speaking of Twitter, the hashtag #litresolution is serving up an interesting stream of tweets. I like this one myself: "@Deborah Freedman In 2011, I am determined to eat less chocolate per word written."

►Do you make notes in the margins of the books you read? Sam Anderson does, and he shared 12 examples in his installment of The Millions' Year in Reading series of posts by noteworthy literary folks.

► The Writer's Digest Conference is scheduled for Jan 21-23 in Manhattan.

►I admire people who forge a writing life when everything else in their life seems to suggest otherwise -- like the cop a few towns over from where I live, who's written critically acclaimed books about Frank Sinatra, Phil Ramone and the Beach Boys. I knew of him for a while, and loved writing this feature about him.

► Finally, one for fun: Don't let your teenagers grow up to be writers (video), and the lovely Laura's year-end round-up over at Pimp My Novel.

Have a great weekend and a fabulous 2011. I recommend all writers opt for fear in the new year.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Note to (Writer) Self: Who do you think you are?

Occasionally, like all writers I think, I waste time (and energy) talking myself out of some major project I'd like to tackle.

Self, I say, you simply don't have enough time to write that. Pathetic little self, you don't yet have the credibility you need to get that project sold. Little nobody self, what makes you think you can get access to those interview subjects? Insignificant little writer self, how do you plan to execute such a vast project, the likes of which you've never even tried?

Delusional self, I continue, that just wouldn't contribute to the bottom line, so stop dreaming. Sorry old self, I say, that idea is just too big (or too different or too much of a reach); you shouldn't try it until you have more (take your pick) experience, publishing credits, contacts.

Finally, I say to myself (by this point I'm on a pretty good self-defeating roll): Who do you think you are anyway?

It's pretty easy to see how quickly I can go from the above to….procrastinating, hedging, avoiding, delaying -- and forgetting all about it. Eventually, I put the BIG idea in a mental drawer, sigh, and move on -- to projects I know I can handle, those that come with guaranteed paychecks, those I know (based on past performance) I can complete with relative confidence.

The funny-sad part of all this is that I don't (ever, really), become unproductive on a daily basis. I keep on producing words and pages and finished pieces, like I always do. I keep taking on new editing clients and ghostwriting projects and workshops, as I always do. I don't stop writing new material or stop teaching, or stop coming up with good ideas for the work I'm already doing. I don't stop querying for freelance assignments or stop submitting my work to literary journals, like I'm always doing.

But then, that's the problem right there: What I'm already doing. Not reaching. Not stretching. Not thinking about or doing something about even one of the bigger solo projects that I both hunger for and recoil from.

I try to ignore and deny this tendency I have to push aside my own BIG goals and just keep doing what I do. I reason with myself that there's no DIShonor in that, in continuing to write, teach, edit and otherwise work hard at a writing life I've carved out through hard work and perseverance, is there? No.


Sometimes I forget. I drop the smiley face, and the sunny everything's-fine front, and let someone see what it is I keep shoving aside as a writer -- that raw, empty spot I want to fill in with the work of that BIG idea, that hole I keep covering over. That happened a few weeks ago when I shared a meal with a writer friend who told me, simply and firmly, to get over it, to get on with it.

Writers, this is the kind of writer-friend you want. You want this kind of friend even if, at the moment, you want to toss your Caesar salad onto her lap.

Since that lunch, I've been thinking about the bigger picture, my BIG ideas, and for the first time in a long time, there's no attendant Greek chorus of Oh-No-You-Can't and Who-Do-You-Think-You-Are playing an endless loop in my brain.

And now, here comes 2011. Time for me, a list lover, to make the planning list I do every January, of what I'd like to accomplish writing-wise (or at least work on, diligently and with conviction) over the next year. Looking back at last year's list, I can cross off 7 of the 10 things I listed, and that's pretty good.

But nowhere on that list was there even one BIG idea, one project that beckoned and also scared me.

In 2011, I plan to scare the hell of out myself.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Just for Fun for Writers and other Word Geeks

For your entertainment today, head over here and see how many of the holiday-related songs you can guess by looking at these slightly silly graphics. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, December 24th Edition

►From an interview over at GalleyCat, Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Stacy Schiff, author of the recently released Cleopatra: A Life -- "Q: What advice can you offer for biography writers?A: Leave a great deal on the cutting room floor. (Lytton Strachey talks about lowering the little biographer’s bucket into the great ocean of material. Allow a lot to slop over the edge.) Talk to everyone who knew your subject in any context. Keep your subject front and center — and in trouble whenever possible. We want always to know what he’s thinking. It will take a year longer than you think." Read the rest of the Q/A here.

This poem, "When I Am in the Kitchen," by Jeanne Marie Beaumont, struck a poignant nerve for me yesterday, as I read it just before prepping the kitchen for an afternoon of baking with my sons. It made me want to stop and touch all the objects in my kitchen which I recall seeing for the first time in the kitchens, and hands, of my (and my husband's) relatives.

► Guess which online venue: "As of this writing, there are 59 writers, 16 editors, 15 image designers, 24 fact-checkers, 11 copy editors and four editorial recruiters. They've hired 40 writers in the last six months." How about Groupon? The Atlantic looks at their writing-centric practices and some of the writers who provide the words. Be sure to read the comments, too.

► Twenty years ago, I did PR for an art supplies manufacturers group, and got into the habit of checking in every December with the folks at Pantone, the color experts, to see what they say will be the "color of the year". They're remarkably adept at forecasting (and influencing) color trends in decor, fashion, make-up, design, graphics, marketing and more. For 2011, they're going with honeysuckle pink. One reason why: “In times of stress, we need something to lift our spirits. Honeysuckle is a captivating, stimulating color that gets the adrenaline going – perfect to ward off the blues.”

► Finally, in this essay I look back at overcoming a personal trauma 14 years ago this month.

Have a great weekend.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Clue: Crossword Inventor (8 letters). Answer: Neighbor. Bing! Story idea.

Every morning I sit at my kitchen counter in a sleepy New Jersey suburb and work the New York Times crossword puzzle, with varying rates of success (and failure). How many times I've sworn in frustration, "Who invented this damn puzzle thing anyway!"

Well, if it were 1913, I could have confronted the chap, who lived just a few blocks from my house. Had I been able to stroll right over, would I have belted him or kissed his face for providing me (and millions of others) with so much tortured pleasure?

I settled for writing about him since on this day 97 years ago, the first crossword (then called a "word-cross") appeared.

P.S. I love how this illustrates what I so often tell new (or frustrated) freelance writers -- that story ideas are absolutely everywhere, even in the places we so often overlook. And, that eavesdropping and just hanging around letting others talk are two prime ways to find new leads. I first learned of this journalist/inventor (who is now largely forgotten) at a community picnic when I lingered at a table staffed by members of the local historical society, who were only too happy to ply any patient listener with "And did you also know...." stories.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean Out – Links for Writers, December 17th Edition

►Guess I'm getting old, but I love this: Defunct: A Literary Repository for the Ages. It's a new online destination for great writing about great (or odd, or just memorable) stuff that was loved (or just ubiquitous) and is no longer around. I love it even more because it's edited by Robin Hemley, a nonfiction author I love, and the director of the nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa. Is that enough love for ya?

► Do you have a Moment? The deadline had been extended (to Jan. 15) for this compilation (from the editors of Six Word memoirs) of 750-word nonfiction pieces about a moment that's impacted your life.

► Matador offered a glimpse of what some other online sites are paying for freelance pieces. While we're on the subject, The Awl has announced it will begin paying writers in 2011.

►On Twitter, spammers most often find people to follow based on searches for certain words and phrases that appear in tweets. Here's a quick list of a few words that attract spammers. Authors apparently, might want to think twice before announcing a book DEAL.

► Brevity Journal's nonfiction writing craft essays are all at your fingertips here.

►No one wants to think about losing all those words written and now living in a computer file. Here's some sound back-up advice for writers, over at the Mystery Writing is Murder blog.

► Finally, poet and University of Texas writing professor Dean Young is in need of a heart transplant and the funds to finance it. If you can donate, Tony Hoagland provides the details here.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Deadlines and Why I Love Them

A whine, overheard while writers were at work in a local café: "Is there any cure for chronic self-editing?"

"Yes," I thought. "It's called a deadline."

How much do I love deadlines? A deadline is every writer's best friend, even when we think it isn't. Deadlines are what keeps me sane, and more important, what keeps me honest. Deadlines are sometimes the only reason a project moves off my desk (and out of chronic self-editing hell) to where it's supposed to go. Deadlines are what makes it possible for me to organize my work life, do cash-flow projections (also known as depression charts!), plan for family needs.

Deadlines might be traditional (an editor or client tells me when he wants a piece of writing, a conference sets a date when panel proposals are due), or what I call reflexive (a class begins on a certain day, which causes me to set a deadline X days ahead for getting my notes, lecture and hand-out materials ready).

Any way I can get a deadline, I'll take it. Because deadlines do more than keep me moving along.

Deadlines also force me to continue to grow as a writer, editor and writing teacher.

I get kind of nauseous thinking about all of the things I would never have accomplished (or completed) if not for deadlines.

Which is why I advise editors and clients who are easy-going, who trust me, or who maybe have flexible deadlines themselves, that I want a deadline; no matter what, there must be a deadline.

No deadline for me can translate into a project – no matter how excited I may have been about it initially – falling to the bottom of the to-do list. Often that's because the project itself, which seemed like such a good idea at the time, is something that scares me a little, something that's a stretch, maybe something which causes me to thwack my forehead and groan, "What was I thinking when I took this on?"

A deadline forces me to just do it.

I'll tell you the deadlines I don't like: the ones warning me my holiday presents won't arrive in time. That's it. All other deadlines are my friends.

A writer friend in the early stages of a (non-writing-related) dissertation, told me her (respected, lovely, supportive) faculty advisor kept saying things like, "Just get me the next chapter draft in a reasonable amount of time…." This was driving her nuts, so she proposed a deadline.

"How about January 28?" she suggested.

"No," the professor said. "January 20. Don't be late."

Was my friend happy? Of course not, she was upset that her "deadline" had been moved up.

Writers. You just can't please us.

Monday, December 13, 2010

That Time of Year: List Making for Writers, the Kindness Version

Last week I was corresponding with a writer who has signed up for my January Boot Camp class, and she was lamenting how she hadn't accomplished all she had set out to do as a writer back in early 2010. Couldn't we all say pretty much the same? Who gets it all done? It doesn't have to be a new calendar year to rededicate ourselves to achieving writing goals, though any outside impetus that helps get us started again is probably a good thing.

But what bothered me about this writer's attitude was that in fact she had made some solid strides in her writing efforts over the last 11 months and I was concerned that she was shortchanging herself, and more importantly, that her mind-set – disappointment, guilt, frustration – was not really going to be much help when she undertook in early 2011 to purposely rev up her writing muscles again.

In my experience, guilt, self-flagellation, regret and feeling as if you've fallen so far behind you may never catch up, may spur some initial action, but are rarely good motivators in the long run.
By now regular blog readers know I am a bit of a list-making fanatic, and each year around this time, I try to remember to make two lists surrounding writing. One is the standard What I Want to Accomplish Next Year list, only I make it a little bit forgiving (practical?) in the sense that instead of listing, say: Get published in X magazine, I'll put: Break into X tier of magazines (and then I'll list several that fall into the same general category in my mind). That way, I avoid feeling let down if I didn't land in my number one choice, but if I do get published, even once, in any of those on that list, I'll be able to see that I made at least some progress toward that goal.

The other list is What I Have Accomplished This Year, a private brag list of what I did do, what wonderful things happened for me, and what's significantly different for me, in a positive way, since this time last year. Here, I tend to go from the very specific and tangible ("landed an ongoing paid column at a website", "designed several new classes") to the task-oriented ("improved my digital photography skills") to broader more creatively nuanced areas ("wrote more prose poems", "read more good quality fiction", "wrote about X, a topic that previously scared me.")

I suggested to this writer that she especially tackle the second kind of list, giving herself credit for all that she'd done in 2010, to improve her craft and move her work along – all the ways in which she took herself seriously as a writer, the publication milestones (she'd forgotten or discounted several!), and how she'd taken steps to organize her writing life to fit around her day job.

It's great to have goals, and if New Year's resolutions are good motivators, then go for it. I just hope that writers everywhere – we are so tough on ourselves – can also take the time to look back, write down what's gotten done, and give ourselves a little pat on the back while we're at it.

Not too long ago, I wrote about how I'd recently come to terms with my tendency to constantly demand more of myself, and the need to balance that with recognizing what's already pretty darn good.

I'd love to hear how you approach the new year as a writer.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, December 10th Edition

► I admire the work of Los Angeles Times writer and engaging essayist Megham Daum and was relieved to learn she was well again after a surprising and nearly lethal infection. She chronicles her ordeal, beginning here.

► Nonfiction writers Bill Roorbach and Dave Gessner have launched a new blog, Bill and Dave's Cocktail Hour. I'm a huge admirer of Roorbach's nonfiction writing craft books, as well as his wit. Gessner is a widely respected essayist, memoirist and author of reported nonfiction about the natural world.

► Over at the Huffington Post, Delia Lloyd offers "Five Tips for Productively Editing Your Writing," and I was so pleased that she included a link to this blog. The commenters over there have some good ideas, too.

► At Daily Finance, a successful ghostwriter speaks, about the job, the money, the frustrations, and all the rest.

Figment, a rich new interactive site for teen writers and readers, got off to a huge start this week. It's the work of a New Yorker writer and a Conde Nast magazine editor.

►The standard (and wise) advice to writers – Don't quit your day job! – takes on a new meaning for this author whose new day job pays a bundle and demands every ounce of his time Oh, what's an author to do?

►Reminder - book give-away: Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, by Rob Sheffield. Go back to this post and leave a comment over there by midnight tonight.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The unexpected mental work of working (and writing) at home.

While teaching and occasional client meetings get me out and about and among other humans from time to time, I work at home and alone much of the time. Mostly, this is a terrific arrangement; I tend to work best on my own, love the quiet, and appreciate the ability to control my schedule, taking care of family obligations and scheduling personal appointments without worrying about whether or not I can explain the missed hours to a boss. Most of all, I like working in sync with my own somewhat skewed mental and physical body clock (which explains why those who know me are not surprised to see cogent emails time-stamped 2:30 a.m.).

If this wasn't the case, I wouldn't have chosen, back in 1990, to leave a lucrative, normal job and "go freelance." Nearly every day since, I've spent a few or far too many hours in my home office. Before devoting myself almost entirely to writing, editing and teaching, my independent working life had a few different incarnations – I ran a tiny but profitable public relations agency, conducted research for a major real estate company (basically spied on its sales force to see who was doing their jobs well, or in many cases, abysmally), and planned events for nonprofit organizations. All of these projects involved a good deal of time on the telephone, at in-person meetings, and otherwise interacting with real humans in real time.

And you know what, I miss that. Well, I miss parts of that. I don't miss needing to go out to meetings every single day, always being available from nine to six, or knowing that the phone will ring almost non-stop most of the day. But I do miss knowing that the otherwise cherished calm of my week will be reliably punctuated by appointments with other working adults at someplace other than my dining room table, where we will talk about something other than how badly my current writing is going.

I'm full of crap, of course.

When I do have a week when I glance at the calendar on a Monday and see that nearly each day I'll need to put on real clothes and go out into the world more than twice, I immediately panic and worry, "Damn, now when will I get any writing done?"

Yet, I've noticed that on the weeks when I do venture out of that home-office, away from my dining room table, whether it's to teach, to work with an editing or ghostwriting client, or even to have lunch with a friend who works in some unrelated field, or occasionally when I take myself somewhere busy just to get the hell out of my own way, I find my writing lurches forward in a more energized way once I crawl back into my office.

When I was a teenager, I used to think my father was a little bit crazy because he liked to sit someplace with a cup of coffee and do what looked like nothing. It usually wasn't by choice; often he was waiting for my mother to finish shopping, or had arrived hours early for a flight (in the days before airport security measures). I thought he was a bit daft for not doing something productive with his time, like reading. After he died and I discovered the short stories he'd written but rarely showed anyone, I realized his people watching had a purpose after all.

Maybe that's what I'm missing mostly, that rich experience of observing other humans, whether they're sitting across the table from me, or swirling about at a crowded conference. Lately I've realized that the first drafts of what later turns into some of my better work, tend to originate after a period of unusually frequent out-of-the-office experiences.

Any (non-writing) semi-intelligent person can probably see the logic in that: sit at the same desk long enough and nothing seems interesting; get out a bit and the whole world suddenly seems worth examining. Any writer should also understand that gobs of uninterrupted time don't necessarily translate into more words on the page; often it's the other way around.

I've been thinking about this recently probably because it's nearly winter again in the Northeast, where I live, and the temptation is great to stay home, warm but alone, to avoid going out when an email exchange might do the trick, to decline invitations that aren't strictly necessary.

I'm going to try to swim against that tide this year.

I'm going to see if I can get myself out more often, and how that affects the rest of my work life, and my writing in particular. Today I'm meeting a writer friend for lunch for no real reason other than we haven't seen each other in a while. I'm hoping to get there a little bit early.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, December 3rd Edition

► I know that many blog readers participated in National Novel Writing Month in November. If you hit the 50,000 word mark,and thus "won" – congratulations! Even if you didn't cross that threshold, but managed to keep the momentum going on your writing production, then kudos too. A round-up of links to some of the best tips NaNoWriMo issued during the marathon, suitable for any genre, are gathered over at GalleyCat. Another great resource, at the NaNoWriMo site, are the "pep talks" sent out weekly from writers including Dave Eggars, Aimee Bender and others.

► Deonne is a southwestern writer, recent MFA graduate, former lit journal editor and all around cool gal who's taken to the road. Her blog is "Gone Scamping: One woman, a tricked-out trailer, and miles and miles of two-lane." It's not typically about writing, but many of her witty, off-kilter and absorbing posts are writer-centric, like this one.

► Well, I'm still shuddering at this confessional piece, by a soon-to-be-former writer employed by a custom term paper writing service, to which college (mostly graduate) students pay thousands of dollars for completely, shall we say, "ghostwritten" materials which they turn in for credit (and often, A's). Ick.

► I'm so proud of my former writing students when their work is published. Uli H. wrote this intuitive essay for the New York Flyers running club blog – about her current (and unusual for her) non-runner status.

► I haven't read Decoded, the new memoir by Jay-Z, but I am curious. It's likely he had a ghostwriter (in a Rolling Stone interview months ago, he notes that the writing process involved being interviewed); yet I have a gnawing sense that anyone who can work with words the way he does in his music, might have something interesting to say. The release of his book has many asking, as others have in the past, if hip hop is poetry. What say you?

►Book give-away. Want to win a copy of Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, by Rob Sheffield (of Rolling Stone, MTV, and author of Love is a Mix Tape)? This 1980s music orgy of a memoir is built around iconic 1980s songs and artists -- and the author's angst. If you'd like to be in the drawing, please leave a comment on this post by midnight Friday, December 10 (and be sure there's a way for me to contact you).

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Gift of Reading: The Gift of an Ordinary Day

A few months ago I had one of those wonderful reading experiences, both as a reader for pleasure, and as a writer-reading-as-a-writer: a mixture of admiration for the prose, a deep connection to the story, and a boatload of those head-nodding, tear-wiping moments when I wondered if the author had been stalking my daily life, reading my mind.

The book is The Gift of an Ordinary Day, a memoir by Katrina Kenison, who for seven years edited the Best American Short Stories annual series. When that job ended, coinciding with her family's move to rural New Hampshire, Kenison began writing this deeply felt narrative about the transitions in her life as a mother.

Surely one of the most significant reasons I loved this book so much is that Kenison, like me, is the mother of two sons; hers were born three years apart, mine a little over four. It is her sons' passage from little boys into adolescents and then young adults, which forms the backbone of her generous reflections on what it means, as a parent as a woman, to both hang on and to let go.

Though I wasn't planning to, early in my reading of the book, I grabbed a pad of those page-marking sticky notes. Before long, the edges of the book resembled a fringed throw rug.

One of the first things I marked is this: "Whether we choose change or it chooses us, the only thing we can know for sure is that security of any kind is an illusion. The life we know is always in the process of becoming something else."

There are dozens of others. Some strike me as beautiful examples of lovingly crafted nonfiction, while others speak to me more directly. Like me, Kenison struggles with making choices for one child, whose needs and aspirations are slightly off center, and worrying about how it will affect the other.

Once, distracted by too many mothering demands in one direction, she'd forgotten about the pet hermit crabs. Later, she writes, "And though the shells have been empty now for almost three years, each time I look at them, these humble relics of our former life, my heart clenches a little, with an old sadness that still comes when I wonder if, at a tender and vulnerable time in his life, we let our younger son down by trying so hard to do right by our older one."

Another passage which grabbed me: "And so I gather up the monotonous winter days, the snow days, the mundane weeknights, the hours we spend together watching a silly TV show, and I string them together in my mind like matched pearls on a thread, finding satisfaction in their very sameness. Ordinary days. The days in which nothing momentous happens, no great victories are won, no huge disappointments suffered, no milestones achieved. Most of our lives are made up of days just like this – if we're lucky, that is…"

And finally, my favorite sentence of all in the entire book:

"It would be so easy to forget to love this life, to just go through the motions, doing what needs to be done, as if it's all going to last forever."

I hope you will watch Kenison read from her book to a group of parents gathered in a living room, and/or visit her blog.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Writing a book: How hard could it be????

Let's get the week off to a jolly start, shall we? Skip on over to the blog of Laraine Herring (novelist, writing craft book author, college writing program director, witty gal) and watch this hysterical short video titled, "So you want to write a novel?" and read her equally funny short post.

That's it for today. Carry on. (P.S. That's code for: get back to writing.)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving Day Jobs: Cook, Eat, Write

Every Thanksgiving for the past several years, in between assembling the sweet potato casserole, I've written. Thanksgiving Day is a writing trigger, for me anyway, which means I find myself wanting to – no, make that feeling forced to – write something. I've talked before on the blog about memory triggers, but to me a writing trigger is something different.

A memory trigger is some object or situation, some visual or aural stimulus, something you experience or witness which usually takes you by surprise and catapults you back to a time in the past which pries loose a memory. Memory triggers are extremely useful to memoir and personal essay writers, who usually stumble into them, or could actively go in search of a trigger.

For me, a writing trigger is something else -- almost always a situation, experience or sensory input (hardly ever a physical object) which causes me to want to write something very specific.

Thanksgiving day, for example, with its confluence of gathered extended family members who don't know one another that well and therefore often engage in stilted, odd or upsetting conversations, is one of my writing triggers; I know that before the pumpkin pie, I will excuse myself (yes, often to the spare rest room, notebook carefully concealed), and I will write about something specific. There is a different quality to this writing – it's not just a list or the collage of random notes and thoughts I jot down when hit with a memory trigger. What I write when confronted with a writing trigger is almost always more formed, more directed, and more linear.

Some of my other writing triggers are:

- long car or train rides through terrain different from my usual suburban views (mountains, beaches, farms)
– weddings and graduations
– listening to the musicians I loved (and who "spoke to me") during my high school or college years
– reading about someone who advocates for a child with special needs
– the smell of New York City train stations
– the Las Vegas skyline from above just before landing
– news of, or meeting up with, old friends from the horse show world
– running into someone who once knew my late father, especially someone who knew him as a young man
– a long walk, usually when I'm away from home
– waking up from a nap in an unfamiliar place (hotel room, friend's house)
– a long, nonstop, night time flight
– any B/W movie which evokes my parents going out in the evening when I was a child
– a visit to the cemetery.

Writing triggers are more personal than memory triggers. A horse show ribbon I find in the attic while looking for something else can remind me of riding, but only running into a riding buddy I haven't seen in 25 years will have me thinking (and writing) once again about how horses influenced my life. Any scrap of mid-1970s music might get me reminiscing about high school, but only listening to the Jackson Five and Stevie Wonder can get me thinking (and writing) about what it felt like to sit out the senior prom because my black boyfriend wouldn't be welcomed.

Sometimes I like knowing a writing trigger event is approaching, especially if I've been in a writing rut (or drought); but other times it's a bit annoying (maybe I'd like to watch the dumb in-flight movie, but I know I'll be writing). I often wonder if other writers also have – or recognize – these triggers which spur writing, and view them as different from random memory triggers. Other times I think I shouldn't analyze it all too carefully, and just be grateful about anything which aids the writing process.

Today is a good day to be grateful.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Guest Blogger Vanessa Wright on An Unexpected Journey: The Writer’s Winding Path

One of the pleasures of having one's work included in an essay anthology is the connection to the other contributors. If you're lucky, you find an entire new group of like-minded writers, expanding your writing community. This has happened, happily, for me several times, and that is precisely how Vanessa Wright and I found one another – as contributors to Why We Ride: Women Writers on the Horses in Their Lives, published by Seal Press last May. Vanessa's artistry is expressed in many ways – as a photographer, writer and teacher, whose work "celebrates the human-equine bond."

Please welcome Vanessa Wright.

Particularly in October, any leaf in New Hampshire will tell you: inspiration can be a dangerous thing. For as long as you can remember, you have been clinging to the same tree: dancing in the wind, glowing in the sunlight, and growing into the lines and arcs of your unique and perfect shape. Life is warm and good. The days always grow longer, and the world grows full.

Then comes the tingling, the cool breeze that riffles the newest, tenderest, and greenest edges of everything that you are. Like laughter between lovers, it is the secret that can never be told, the call not to your heart but to your clear, swift-running blood that cries, “Become!” Become what? “Shh. Let go.” How? Why? And what will happen? No answer comes, except a harvest all crimson and gold, a shortening of days, and a brisk, northerly certainty that change is in the wind.

I was a writer once. I researched and wrote thousands of words each week: fiction, nonfiction, instructional text, history, literature, nature, myth. I was fearless and, thus, full of stories. Fairy tales and lesson plans dropped into my hands, ripe and plump as strawberries; the grand dance of nations, inventions, and ideas twirled itself out in chapters among the wildflowers as my horse and I lolled in his pasture.

I could have lived in that summer country forever. But those silver fingers brushed my drowsing eyelids; that golden bell shattered the dam holding back the clear river from my veins. A strange and terrible story coursed through me – a story unlike anything I’d written, a story of glowering skies and trees turned to flame. Summer turned to autumn in a moment, and that blissful pasture withered beneath my feet.

For a thousand reasons as complex and common as the lace on an aspen leaf, I could not write it. That story, it was not who I was – it was not the fairy tale I wanted it to be. My own heart failing me, I leaned upon the one heart that never had: my horse’s.

The stories came – and went to print – quickly. “Rope Trick,” an essay about my horse’s near-magical abilities to make food appear and disappear, was published in Dr. Marty Becker’s Ultimate Horse Lover. “Under the Wings of Pegasus” tells the true story of my horse's midlife calling to become a foal-sitter for rescued, orphaned and challenged young horses, and opens Allen and Linda Anderson’s Horses with a Mission: Extraordinary True Stories of Equine Service. Of course, “Great Grand-Mare,” the mane-raising tale of his sprint with my 92-year-old grandmother, appears in Verna Dreisbach’s Why We Ride.

Yet writing about my horse produced results I did not expect. My focus turned from the past to the present moment, from the world to here. I realized that legendary horses and their people – Pegasus and Bellerophon, Greyfell and Siegfried, even the Pie and Velvet Brown – had their equals in compassion, courage, and heroism in my own horse and in the lives of those he touched, and those who touched him.

I decided then to travel, across America and around the world, collecting the stories of today’s heroic horses and horse-people, novices and Olympians alike. I photographed them and paired the photos and bios with quotations from classic books. I offered the collection to libraries, and added educational materials I created drawing upon my experience as a teacher of history and literature and as a director and manager of a children’s theater program. Before I knew it, it had become The Literary Horse: When Legends Come to Life, an exhibit touring public and school libraries worldwide through 2012.

More than 150,000 children, teens, and adults have visited The Literary Horse exhibit since its debut in May 2008. It has appeared at libraries to celebrate national and international events ranging from Children’s Book Week to the World Equestrian Games, and it has trotted into the pages of national media outlets including EQUUS, The Blood-Horse, Horses in Art, and

Though I have walked a winding path, not only am I still a writer, I am more of a writer than I was before. The kindness and generosity of the equestrians and horses of The Literary Horse were my harvest of crimson and gold. Learning of their journeys beneath glowering skies and through trees turned to flame, reminded me that all days are short, and that change is how we meet each moment – that it is a blaze and a leap to be embraced. Simply walking among them inspired me to become, and to let go. And that story I could not - would not - write began to write itself.

So, like any leaf in New Hampshire, I too will tell you that inspiration is a dangerous thing: follow it, and you may become more than you ever dreamed you could be.

To learn more about Vanessa Wright's The Literary Horse: When Legends Come to Life, which pairs photos of today’s novice through Olympic horses and riders with quotations from the world’s great books, visit the website. Vanessa also recently started the blog Great Books for Horse Lovers.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, November 19th Edition

Lots of links for my lovely readers this week. Enjoy!

► Ever wonder, as you're revising, if you've overused a particular word? WordCounter can help. (hat tip 10,000 Words).

►One of my favorite concepts surrounding the personal essay is where the *I* on the page intersects with the writer, and where it departs. Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Carl H. Klauss, author of The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay (University of Iowa Press), has this to say.

►I'll let the title of this New York magazine article, which could double as a warning to hopeful young novelists, speak for itself: "James Frey's Fiction Factory." [Someone call the Crappy Contract police.]

►On the other hand, some first novels are getting big bucks deals in Hollywood. One of the books in The Wrap's round-up is none other than one produced by Frey's venture, but guess who gets most of the money AND can't even put it on his resume? See above, under Someone Call the Crappy Contract Police.

►Have you seen the new online magazine Talking Writing?

► Over at Publishing Perspectives, book editor turned agent Betsy Lerner has lots to say about the relationship between authors and their own book publicity efforts. Here's a bit, but do read the whole piece:
"The writer who can marshal her forces and promote her book wherever and to whoever might actually get the word out is a secret weapon…Whether you should tweet is a little beside the point. The task at hand is to decipher what is most powerful in your work and connect it to every person, institution or media outlet who will listen. It’s not the form, it’s the content…Lately, when selling books, I’ve had editors ask, does the writer tweet, blog, or have a Facebook presence. It isn’t about jumping on every available piece of internetworking.
Nor do you have to put on some pasties and swing yourself around a pole. It’s about finding the nerve your book strikes and going after it."

►The Wellesley Centers for Women have an interesting Women=Books blog.

►Women writers who are mothers are talking about a post titled "My 10 New Ground Rules for Writing in Public About the Kids" over at SheWrites. I'm not in total agreement with the author's rules. In the piece, Hope Edelman has perhaps the wisest advice: that the "rules" for each individual mother-writer usually change over time.

► The New York Times will now publish an ebook bestseller list.

► Finally, it's good for a writer, every once in a while, to step outside the comfort zone. I'm talking here about topics, not genre, though that's another great craft expander. Last week, I wrote an entire piece about something I rarely mention in an essay – sex. It felt kind of good.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Stuff My Writing Students Say -- Part Six

"I find that I am so excited to write and write that I fear for my day job. At the moment I am reviewing a contract concerning asparagus - how can that compete with writing class?"

Here's something interesting (well, interesting to me): In the dozen or so different writing classes I have taught or workshops I have led over the past couple of years, there has almost always been a student who is an attorney.

The common thread seems to be a particularly affecting desire, longing, yearning, to write -- to write creatively, to shed their logical, linear, clinical mind-sets, and indulge an interest in creating prose that explores messy boundaries, unclear scenarios, emotional complications, oblique approaches, and the intersection of imagination and reality.

What's cool for me, as I help these sometimes very frustrated attorneys navigate a place in their lives for creative writing, is that I can point out to them a few traits which they see as a disadvantage, but I assure them are benefits: how their skills as legal thinkers can help their creative nonfiction writing. I'm talking about an attention to small details (and how those small details can affect something larger), an understanding of how to utilize punctuation to intended effect, an ability to consider situations, people (and by extension, themselves) from many perspectives, and – my favorite – a way of taking in and engaging with feedback in a calmly logical, ordered way.

The newish writer I quoted above doesn't just speak for attorneys of course. I've had others – in jobs that have included physician, truck driver and caterer – who tell me more or less the same thing: writing lures, teases, tempts them when they should be paying attention to something else.

To which I can only reply: Welcome to the dark side. There is no turning back. Better stash a notebook in your white coat, on the passenger seat or behind the spice rack.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Essay Lovers, I Have Your Evening Reading

Writers interested in discussions about the literary, narrative and personal essay may want to check out the free download of the proceedings from Welcome Table Press's first symposium, held at Fordham University last Spring, "In Praise of the Essay: Practice and Form." There are five meaty pdf files, with topics and tone ranging from the formal to the more frolicsome.

Consider this, the opening to Brian Doyle's paper, "Playfulness: A note" --

"Thesis: The essay is the widest, fattest, most generous, open, glorious, honest, endlessly expandable form of committing prose, not only because it cheerfully steals and hones all the other tools and talents of all other forms of art, and not only because it is admirably and brilliantly closest to not only the speaking voice but the maundering, shambling, shuffling, nutty, wandering, salty, singing voices in our heads, but because it is the most playful of forms, liable to hilarity and free association and startlement, without the filters and mannered disguises and stiff dignity of fiction and poetry and journalism, respectively."

While you're over there, note that there is a call (though scant on details) for submissions to a planned anthology of essays written in the second person. And if you're the advance planning sort, their second essay symposium, with a terrific line-up of speakers, is set for October 2011.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Typing Does Not Equal Writing, and other not-so-funny advice via David Sedaris

As I mentioned last week, I'm working my way through the book And Here's the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on their Craft. I found much of what David Sedaris had to say in his interview answers went beyond humor writing, right to the heart of writing craft and process.

Here are a few insights I especially liked:

"Q: How long does it generally take for you to write a story?

A: It can take years. With the first draft, I just write everything. With the second draft, it becomes so depressing for me, because
I realize that I was fooled into thinking I'd written the story. I hadn't – I had just typed for a long time. So I then have to carve out a story from the 25 or so pages. It's in there somewhere – but I have to find it. I'll then write a third, fourth, and fifth draft, and so on."

When asked about how he sometimes edits his existing essays for reading to an audience, Sedaris described his preparation process, which also applies to the essay when it's still in revision. I believe this is good advice whether or not you will ever read your work aloud (although most writers will at some point read to a group). I read everything out loud, when I'm home alone, always standing up:

"When I hear myself reading out loud, I hear things I don't hear when I read (silently) to myself. When I read aloud, I always have a pencil in hand. If I feel I'm trying too hard, or I'm being repetitive, I make a mark. An editor can tell you those same things, but you don't necessarily believe the editor. So it's good to just learn those things on your own, and then to fix them as much as you can before you turn in the piece to the editor."

About how reading and writing intersect, a favorite topic of mine, he says, in part:

"…On the other hand, I also became a reader around this time (when he was studying art), which is so important for a writer. If I read a story in The Atlantic, I would be in a daze afterward. It just meant so much to me. When I later taught at the Art Institute (of Chicago), I could very easily spot the students who never read. Their stories would be shit. I would point to their work and then to a published work. I'd ask, 'Do you see a difference between these two things?' A lot of student couldn't see the difference. For them, there was no hope."

And, within a much longer answer to a question about the empirical truth, exaggeration and re-creation in nonfiction, he notes: "Memoir is the last place you should ever look for the truth."

I agree with that statement, in this way: My interpretation of his implication is that the only "truth" a writer can infuse into memoir is not centered on accuracy, factualness, or provable history; but only the writer's "truth" which is more about meaning, perception, recollection, and an honest personal and emotional exactness.

I highly recommend this book as so many of the other interviews are wonderful, too. By the way, I don't know this book's editor and haven't been asked by anyone to write something nice about it. Just passing on what I find useful, and hoping you find it of interest, too.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers - November 12th Edition

A little light on links this week. Hope you enjoy what's here.

► Over at the Columbia Journalism Review, what happened when one experienced journalist worked a few weeks for a content mill.

► Natalie Whipple at her Between Fact and Fiction blog, on the "agreement" writers makes with readers, and how and when to break it.

►Literary agent Nathan Bransford, whose blog and online forums are wildly popular, is leaving the biz.

► Writers who have something to say about sports, check out Sport Literate, the print literary journal which publishes nonfiction and poetry. An essay about tennis from a recent issue is currently available online.

► What do you do when you're Facebook-exec-rich and still very young? You start a venture like Quora, a "continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it."

► Finally, The printed word, already endangered, seems to have a new foe: folks who want to ban magazines in certain places because they spread germs. Yep.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Department of Shameless Self-Promotion: Events for Local Writer Folks

If you live or work in the NJ-NY metro area, here are a few of my upcoming events:

> On Wednesday evening, November 17, I will be among a group of people experienced in writing, editing, publishing and other literary pursuits, as one of the guest "experts" at Networking for Word Nerds, in Manhattan. The format's akin to speed dating, but without the veiled judgment, awkward silences or the need to dress to impress. More information is here. P.S. It's so low cost, you'll have plenty left over to spend at the bar (oh, sorry, I mean, at the book store the next day. Ahem.)

> A few days after that, you can catch my presentation/discussion/interactive "mini-class" on memoir and creative nonfiction at the Tom's River, NJ branch of the Ocean County Library, part of their Write @ The River Series. This one is free, and it's filling fast. Info here.

> Looking for something a little meatier? The 8-week Memoir and Creative Nonfiction class I teach in the Rutgers continuing education department begins again on January 25, 2011. We meet three Saturday mornings on campus (New Brunswick) and cover the other five weeks online. Details are here.

> And if you're really right in my backyard (Northern NJ/Essex County area), and need a little (or a very big) push to get or keep yourself writing in the new year, consider I Should Be Writing! It's five weeks of boot-camp-style sessions, designed to dramatically move projects along for writers who need some, shall we say, group guidance. (Notice how I didn't even mention the word procrastinate?) For more details, email me.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

This post is not funny. But it is about humor writing.

I've done some humor writing, and love to read it. This week, in my online nonfiction class, it's all about the funny. My students are gamely grappling with full-on humor pieces as well as the subtle deployment of a bit of humor in an otherwise not-so-funny piece of writing. In addition to a number of other resources, both online and not, I've been passing along wisdom from two books.

In How To Write Funny: Add Humor to Every Kind of Writing, editor John B. Kachuba gathered craft tips and writing exercises from 14 humor writers, and interviewed 15 others. Some are names most readers recognize – Dave Barry, Roy Blount, Jr., Bill Bryson. Others are names known just as much for their own work as teachers of the nonfiction craft – Dinty Moore, Robin Hemley, Denise Duhamel.

In "The Seven Laws of Comedy Writing," David Evans notes, "Character is 98 percent of comedy….and timing is the other 98 percent." He's talking initially about movies and stand-up, but the idea is the same for nonfiction – if the narrator isn't a character a reader is compelled to listen to, funny won't matter. As for timing, Evans emphasizes the importance of letting humor unfold, gradually, "like a time release capsule." He goes on to discuss repetition and the "rule of three" – something every skilled humor writer uses – three funny examples, three pratfalls, three funny phrases in a row.

A newer book, And Here's the Kicker: Conversations With 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft, edited by Mick Sacks, presents question-and-answer interviews with 21 accomplished humorists, including David Sedaris, Jack Handey, and (the perennial) Dave Barry. More specific to each writer's particular resume, the interviews range wide and dig deep. I'm loving every minute making my way through this book.

Even after publishing dozens of pieces in The New Yorker's humor column, Shouts & Murmurs, Jack Handey says he still get rejected about one-third of the time. In another repeated section of the book where editors, agents and others offer "quick and painless advice for the aspiring humor writer," his New Yorker editor, Susan Morrison, guesses that the one-third stat "sounds a little high for Jack," but that yes, she does sometimes say no, even to her most prolific humor writers.

Handey's New Yorker pieces generally take him, "A long time. The hard part is coming up with the ideas, letting the idea simmer, then going back and seeing if there's anything there. It can take months or even years for an idea to click. I am usually suspicious of any idea of mine that I love right away." He wasn't kidding.

Do you have a favorite current humor writer? I'm partial to Bill Bryson, who, in the Kachuba book, reminds writers that readers should come across funny bits in books, "...little by little rather than be inundated by them. They should be a spring shower rather than a deluge…people can only laugh so long. You get tired of laughing. Even if you're really enjoying it, the idea of spending five hours listening to even the funniest comedian in the world begins to feel like torment. You don't want to keep on laughing, you want to relax. Everybody's heard of comic relief, but actually you need a straightforward relief from comedy. It took me a while to realize that, but I think it not only gives the readers a relief, it makes the jokes, when they come, that much more effective."

Which is good news because how many of us can be funny all over the page? The writers featured in these two books actually can, but they know just how often and just when and just how much to let loose.

Readers, do you write any humor? Or try to incorporate humor in your regular writing? What's great and awful about it?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers. November 5th Edition

► Even if you're not a poet, a rhyming dictionary can be fun. This one is online and free (hat tip Pimp My Novel's fabulous and always funny Friday Round-up by Laura).

►What are the economic realities of being a novelist? Catherine Ryan Hyde shares. Warning: you may wish to be seated, drink at hand.

► Authors setting up a Facebook fan (sorry, "Like") page should consider delivering a "signature experience" according to this advice from Amy Porterfield (via Arielle Ford on HuffPo).

► I've done my share of fact-checking at numerous jobs and couldn't help but feel a mix of nostalgia, indignation and resignation when I read this piece (WAY back in August) about what passes for fact-checking at many online venues today.

► The pro/con Is An MFA Worth It? debates continues. This one runs down the pro side of the list, from an instructor's perspective. Here, another look at the question, with links to some of the most relevant screeds, endorsements and tips.

Puking. Hot-blooded. Alligator. What do they have in common? Oh, my liege, you need to brush up on words Shakespeare invented. Be warned: This one's from Cracked.

► Chuck Sambuchino on "writing for love and money." Are there any other reasons?

► Finally, when an agent or editor says sure, send it along, that amounts to "requested materials." How to send them? Probably not like this.

Have a great weekend.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A cliche by any other name would deleted.

Most of the time, writers strive to eliminate cliches from our work, because they speak to a lack of original creative expression. They're generally vague and nonspecific. They seem to shout: this writer can't be bothered to write exactly what she means, so this overused hackneyed phrase will just have to do.


I DO think cliches serve a purpose, and so that's why when I'm writing a first draft, I let them fly. I'm not the sort of writer who can sit, fingers poised above keyboard, for long periods until I come up with the most interesting word or phrase -- at least not when I'm trying to get down the bones of a first draft.

I do that later.

When I'm making a first draft where none existed before, I tend to move quickly. So I write the danged cliche into the piece, and move on. And keep moving. Yeah, I know those stupid cliches have to go...but not now. Now, I'm busy getting a first draft out of my head and onto the page.

For now, that cliche is a place-holder.

Soon enough -- when I get the first draft to resemble something at least partially intelligible -- I will print it out, and grab my highlighter and mark each and every horrible cliche. (I do this for for adverbs too, but that's another blog post.)

Meanwhile, while they are still in place, I think about those cliches (figures of speech, euphemisms, etc.) and I ask myself what I really mean to say instead.

What is it I mean, precisely? When I can begin to understand and to answer that question, I can delete that horrid stale place-holder with something (I hope) more elegant, accurate and interesting.

Cliches can be a writer's friend, if only we can think of them as having found their way into our messy first drafts because they tell us something about an elemental truth we are trying to convey. They are good markers. They tell me - Hey, you over there, writer: here's a hint about what you mean to say, but egads, you can do a whole lot better than this!

I'm curious what others think. Readers, do we see eye to eye on this?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: October 29th Edition

Some link list love – enjoy!

► Ah, the artist colony, the writer residency, the artist retreat – peace and quiet, no distractions, a place and a time to tune out the world and do nothing but write, right? Not so much anymore, now that wifi connections have taken hold at many locations.

►Nonfiction writers (and those who enjoy reading essays), have you checked out the Essay Daily blog? The site's own description reads: A filter for and an ongoing conversation about essays and magazines of interest. Worth the trip, especially for the sidebar list of links to Homes for the Essay.

►I'm a big proponent of having a writing accountability buddy, and also a quantifiable submission plan. Over on Twitter, some writers have begun the #10bythen list. The idea is, you commit to making 10 submissions a month, and then update your fellow writers about your progress, commiserate, lend support, and send up whoops for acceptances.

►While these kinds of lists are sometimes tiresome, The New Haven Review put a new twist on it with "20 Nonfiction writers under 40."

►Do you use the feature at Amazon which allows you to search inside the book before you buy? According to this report, a new patent suggests the giant online bookseller may be considering charging for this service in the future.

►If you are considering publishing an ebook, perhaps no one is better suited to give you the dollars and sense scoop than J.A. Konrath, whose ebook-only books have sold in the millions. Check his blog, A Newbie's Guide to Publishing. Then, head over to Lauren Baratz-Logsted's feisty installment of her Disrespectful Interviewer series with the good-natured author.

►And finally, do you speak "college slang"? Would you even want to? Inquiring word geeks only, please.

Update: Don't know why, but several of these links weren't working; they have been fixed now!

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Intersection of Writing and Reading: Part Two.

The subject today is again about the intersection of writing and reading.

But this time, not so much a rant about reading, as an attempt to unpack another question I get asked a lot by less experienced writers in classes and workshops: Should I avoid reading too much of the kind of material I want to write?

This one is less black and white as why writers need to read, though at first blush it appears to warrant a quick answer, as in, no of course not, don't be so silly.

But if I'm understanding the question properly – and since I've asked people who pose it to explain exactly what they mean, I think I do – the inquiry boils down to: If I read too much of the kind of writing I aspire to, won't I, even unintentionally, begin to mimic others' style? Won't I get another writing voice in my head when I should be listening only to my own?

First things first.

I believe we must read deeply and broadly from what I call our writing sweet spot: If you aspire to be a humorist, you read good humor writers. If you hope to write about trauma or a painful past, you read nonfiction which tackle trauma and painful pasts. If you want to write historical fiction, you read a lot of historical fiction. Poets read poetry. You get the idea.

The reasons are obvious – to see how others do it, and how well and how remarkable it is possible to be on the page. You'll discover places you can go with your work that you never considered before. You will also sometimes encounter stuff you don't want to do.

If you wanted to build an entire new kitchen in your home and you had very little building experience or maybe your building experience was only comprised of building commercial offices, and your cousin the master builder was putting in a new kitchen at a house just down the road and invited you to come along and watch, well - wouldn't you?

The next part, the notion of being unduly influenced by other writers is interesting but really not all that different. In short, I wouldn't really worry about it.

In the above example, your eventual kitchen might utilize some of the same techniques as your cousin's, and who knows, maybe even some of the same materials and similar colors and appliances as your cousin's, but it wouldn't BE that same kitchen. It wouldn't even look much like his kitchen because your house has different dimensions, and structural constraints, and you have a different budget and differing taste. Maybe he was building a showpiece kitchen for folks who mostly eat out, but yours is a kitchen for people who love to cook at home.

Your writing style will be your own, your writing will be your own too. You can't help that. You are stuck with yourself. Usually, for most artists, that's a very good thing. And you know what, if you end up writing like the next (fill in the name of any literary god) well is that a bad thing?

If you were (even subconsciously) to be so heavily influenced by another writer that you began to write in his/her style, that's also not bad news. A little imitation is often a good writing teacher; in fact many writing teachers assign imitative writing as a craft exercise.

Going forward, you won't be able to maintain that imitative style anyway. Your own writing proclivities, quirks and style will always win out. Even if you tried with every ounce of your being to write exactly like a fabulous (or even a bad!) writer, you can't. At least not for more than a few pages. And probably not even that long. Plus, you have different reasons for writing, and different experiences, different ideas about language, a different vocabulary, different urges and intention. That writer has one thing to say, and you have another.

Another reason TO read widely from the sliver of bookshelf you hope to one day occupy is to discover where your material fits in. Do you, as you hope, really have anything new to add to the literary conversation?

Now, having said all of that I also have to admit that there's something to be said for NOT reading from your writing sweet spot at certain times.

What times? Some writer say when they are deeply entrenched in a project, at one stage or another according to their own lights, that's when they want to screen out voices that are maybe a little too close to their writing voice.

I know a few memoir writers who read memoirs voraciously in between projects and up until the early stages of a new manuscript. But then they switch to reading third person fiction so that the only first person voice they are hearing in their heads as they are writing, is their own. I know one young adult novelist who will only read journalism while she's working on the first draft of a book, but then once she's sure of the arc of the story, she's okay with reading everything again.

When I'm reading a book for review, I tend to not read any other book in the same genre at the
same time. When I'm in the revision stages, or rewriting, a memoir piece, I too avoid reading memoir. But when I write personal essay, I practically inhale other personal essays. Everyone's different.

Then there's this.

Most writers I know (me too) will tell you that when stuck, the first place we go is to the bookshelf. Why? Well sometimes we just want to read for a bit, to get out of our own work and inside someone else's, to distract ourselves, but not leave the world of words entirely. But more likely, we want to see how X author (or ten other writers) did it. We're not looking to crib easy "answers" but to get inspired by writers we respect, to reassure ourselves that it's possible to get out of whatever writing corner we've gotten ourselves into.

I like this quote from a legendary stage performer, who was asked how he'd advise aspiring artists: "Watch the masters at work."

As writers, we "watch" the masters at work by reading what they've written.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Of Writing, Reading, and a Rant

Warning: I feel a rant coming on.

Look, I’m no authority on how reading affects the writer's brain or creative process other than what I know intuitively, logically and via personal experience, and what I've gleaned by reading about this issue, and from talking with other writers.

But I do know this: you can't be a writer if you are not a reader. A big reader.

Seems to me writers have to be readers by default, else how would any of us even know we want to write in the first place? Maybe that's a little too simplistic; the urge to communicate is not limited to marks on paper, after all, but I'm talking about wanting to write so that others can read what one has written. How else do we get that urge other than from experiencing writing first as a reader?

We all start out as readers before we are writers.

And yet in many classes and workshop I run, I'm gobsmacked by writers, in the early stages of their writing life, who claim not to be especially interested in reading and/or say they don't have time to read.

Here's what I say: If you don't have time to read, maybe you don't really have time to write either.

Let's say all you have available to devote to writing is a two hour chunk of time per a week. I'm suggesting you read for an hour and write for an hour, and over the long haul, the writing will be far better than if you had written for those full two hours.

Reading feeds writing. Reading good writing opens the door to a deeper understanding of craft, possibility, creativity. Reading teaches us to think as writers, and to know, in our bones, what it feels like to be consumers of writing.

Can vocal students NOT listen to recordings of vocal performances? To songs? To the radio, CDs, to each other? Do hopeful downhill ski racers progress by watching cross-country competitions, or by watching no skiing at all? Are there visual artists out there who rarely look at others' paintings? What would happen to a chef who rarely ate other chefs' cooking?

I don't get it and don't think I ever will. Most writers, if they've spent enough time thinking about what it is about their craft which they love, realize they are enthralled not only with the act of writing, but by the "moving parts" of writing, which we only notice by reading -- individual words and the millions of ways they can be put together, meaning and language, story, the cadence of words strung together, the rhythm and style of favorite lines. So why wouldn't we always want to experience more of that?

I believe a writer's reading life has a lot to do with what kind of a writer one chooses to be, or can continue to be. I love to read from many different genres and media, but it wasn't until I realized just how much nonfiction I was reading that I realized it was what I mostly wanted to write. The more I found my way to the top of the creative nonfiction reading pile, the more excited I was to try to secure a place there myself. In that sense, I feel that writing, as a personal act as well as the process which produces a public piece of literary art, cannot grow out of anything except aspiration.

And when the writing is not going so well, the answer is often not more writing. The answer to a writing problem is often more reading.

What say you?

P.S. Read anything good lately?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links Writers May Like. October 22nd Edition

Typically, every Friday I post interesting web links (both obscure and popular) I've found throughout the week – hence the name, Friday Fridge Clean-Out (much the way I feed my family on Friday nights). Lately, I've only been sporadically blogging, so the fridge is now overflowing. Some of them may have already found their way to your screen, though a handful are more current. Either way, enjoy.

►In the LA Times, Mary McNamara offered this Working Mother's Guide to Writing a Novel. Bottom line: difficult but do-able, and a daily decision.

►Manhattan's popular The Strand ("18 miles of new, used, rare & out-of-print books") used to stack small inexpensive books near the register for impulse buys, but lately have found what grocery and convenience stores have known for years. Readers have a sweet tooth.

►Anyone who has done it before and is heading into National Novel Writing Month again this November probably has a list of tips for newbies. This one, serious ("Learn how NOT to edit") and silly ("Lock up all fire arms"), covers a lot of the bases.

►Free public wifi isn't a bargain if it plants a bug on your computer, as NPR explains.

►Is there a writing workshop in your future? Can't hurt to review these tips at MFA In A Box. I especially like: "Don’t ever confuse a writing group with a therapy group." Ah, but doesn't that kill half the fun?

►No matter what they write, I am almost always interested in how and why successful writers created the work they did, sometimes especially when it's outside of my genre and/or skill set, which is why I enjoyed this piece about how Darlene Hunt created and writes scripts for The Big C, a new Showtime TV series.

►My friend Sari Botton, a standout ghostwriter (a Q/A with her ran here last year), recently interviewed Vivian Gornick about the difficulty, in memoir, in writing the truth and also taking care of loved ones on the page. Gornick's first memoir was Fierce Attachments and her craft book, The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, is probably on every nonfiction writer's shelf (or should be).

►I had a major crush on Andrew McCarthy from the Brat Pack films (St. Elmo's Fire, etc. – yeah, I'm dating myself) through to his turn in Lipstick Jungle last year. Now he's back on my radar, winning the 2010 Travel Journalist of the Year award in the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition. He's the real deal too, as this brief Washington Post interview notes, with bylines in Travel and Leisure, Afar, Bon Appétit and National Geographic Traveler.

►I have always believed that the creative process is somehow altered (in my opinion, for the better), when we handwrite rather than type our first drafts. Lately, researchers are finding that handwriting delivers all kinds of other benefits too.

►And finally: we writers ARE a strange lot, no? We want to write, crave time to write, complain about not having enough time to write, and yet sometimes….we just don't write. One Page Per Day seems like a workmanlike way to trick yourself into it.

Have a great weekend.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Next Daily Writing Prompt Project Begins Today

I planned a longish post today about writing prompts, and why I love them and how much I enjoy sending them out and all the great feedback I've gotten from fellow writers about how they use the prompts, and lot of other prompt-related stuff.

Instead, I'm just going to say hey, the new round begins today.

It works like this: Sign up, receive a writing prompt in your email every day until Thanksgiving. The prompts are suitable for all kinds of writers. Any genre. Free. Simple. No expectations. No obligations. Join in anytime, opt out anytime. Use the prompt. Don't use it. Save it. Share it. Delete it. You choose.

To get on the list, send an email. Please put Prompts in the subject line.

You can read more about why I started this prompt project earlier this year, what writers have said about it, and why you might want to consider participating: here and here and here and here. The Women on Writing site also ran this recent article about how prompts and writing exercises can motivate and inspire.

Update: The email link in this post appears to be working now. If not, use the email link button on the left sidebar, or simply:

Thursday, September 30, 2010

I can write. I can spell. I just can't write, hear, think and speak at the same time.

Lately, I have been one tired, stressed and very pre-occupied writer. Here's how I know.

Preteen son pops his head into my office. I don't even turn in my chair. This is what I hear him asking: "Mom, what are band books?"

Me, staring at screen and cursing the words which are stubbornly resisting my efforts to corral them into place, an activity in which we've been mutually engaged for five hours: "Uh, I don't know. Books about bands?"

Son, sounding perplexed: "So can I read one?"

Me, momentarily grateful this can be solved with a quick click to an online bookseller: "Sure, how about the Beatles?" I finally turn to look at him.

Son, looking at me as if I have lost many thousands of brain cells since breakfast, which I may have: "No, a banned book. B-A-N-N-E-D. I saw a poster at school that said 'Read a banned book this week.' "

I know about the long, sorry lists of banned books and challenged books. I know that this is Banned Books Week. I know I can explain this to my son, an energetic and curious reader. I want to have that conversation. I want to tell him ten or a hundred things about banned books and let him know about libraries and book stores holding events to mark the occasion.

But I'm tired, stressed and pre-occupied. So I give him a two sentence summary and offer a simple link. Then I wonder why, in a school which (thankfully) displays a Banned Books protest poster, he hasn't already heard this from a teacher. Then I yawn and look back at my screen. I once read that creative folks perform better after a nap. Might be a good idea to test that theory.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out. Links for Writers: September 17th Edition

+ The Wall Street Journal, is morphing constantly of late, and among dozens of other changes, the paper is launching a stand-alone weekly book review section.

+ I once came up with 236 cooking- and food-related idioms for a magazine article assignment back in the 1990s (which, sadly was killed; or should I say it got put on the back burner?). But that was just a list. Smithsonian magazine tackled the origins of a dozen food idioms in this piece; and some of the comments will lead you to more.

+ In this piece at Slate, Jack Shafer makes a case that, “Books are being replaced by reading,” and aside from whether that’s good for reading, he laments the passing of the weighty physical and mental importance of the physical book.

+ Will the 99-cent literary essay catch on?

+ For those who write about the motherhood experience, take a loot at Milk and Ink.

+ And finally, check out Douglas Copeland’s “A Dictionary of the Near Future” in the New York Times, for fun gems like: “KARAOKEAL AMNESIA - Most people don’t know the complete lyrics to almost any song, particularly the ones they hold most dear. (See also Lyrical Putty),” and “LYRICAL PUTTY - The lyrics one creates in one’s head in the absence of knowing a song’s real lyrics.”

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Guest Blogger Jennifer Gresham on The Alien Interview: How to Get a Scientist to Speak Human

Jennifer Gresham is a poet and the author of the popular blog Everyday Bright, focused on personal and professional fulfillment (and occasionally fascinating science). She also holds a PhD in biochemistry, and has had a long career in the Air Force, where she continues to work as a reservist and consultant. Her duties have often included writing, and along the way, she's developed an ear for a good scientist interview.

Please welcome Jennifer Gresham.

In my first job as the head of an optical microscopy group, my supervisor asked me to attend a meeting at Lawrence Livermore National Lab. Despite listening very hard and asking a few basic questions of those near me, I couldn't even determine the topic of the discussion, much less the recommendations. These were scientists talking about what they did day-in and day-out, but to me, the words were completely alien. I drove home in tears.

Back in February of this year, the New York Times reported that based on their own metrics, readers were more likely to share articles about science than almost any other topic. As writers, that's good news, because there's so much exciting science that goes unreported. But even if you only write fiction, knowing the details behind the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria on gym floor mats or how inspectors catch nuclear proliferators can open up novel story lines your readers will love.

The tricky part is not finding scientists willing to talk to you, but getting them to talk intelligibly.

When I was ultimately tapped to be the Chief of Corporate Communications for the Air Force Research Lab, I knew what I was up against. I'd have to devise questions as elegantly as a scientist’s experiment if I wanted good results. Here are a few tips I picked up along the way to transform even the most alien interviews into an engaging conversation:

- Play “dumb”: Many interviewers prep their subjects by asking them to “speak as if they were chatting with their grandmother.” Unfortunately, this often only results in them spelling out acronyms. Asking your subjects dumb questions early in an interview can release your subjects from what Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the book Made To Stick, refer to as the "curse of knowledge." I once interviewed a scientist who was working to enable hypersonic flight. After two questions where I'd gotten a lot of talk about scramjets and an absence of oxidizers, I interrupted to ask "What does 'hypersonic flight' really mean anyway?" He was taken aback (since I was in the Air Force), but his answers after that were, thankfully, more geared towards the lay person.

- Begin with the personal: I spent a lot of time with tribologists, whose far-reaching work on lubricants for everything from satellites to fighter jets was often overlooked by the mainstream media. But the best story came when I happened to ask the lead scientist, who had immigrated to the US from Russia, about his experiences in graduate school. He told me a fascinating story of how he transformed his skills in coating technology to produce beautifully colored spoons and glassware to support his family after the fall of the USSR, and ultimately escape the mob. I couldn't believe I'd never thought to ask about his history in the four years I'd been working with him. Now I try to begin with these questions to add the more interesting human element from the get go.

- Break the rules: Most writers don’t share their questions with their subjects prior to an interview for fear of getting stilted, stock answers. But when inquiring about subjects that may extend well beyond what you learned in your high school science class, it’s also easy to miss the best material simply because you don’t know to ask about it. John Ohab, whose popular blog Armed with Science began as a podcast, found that allowing his interview subjects to submit five questions they wanted to answer reduced stress and made them more comfortable. For the writer, these answers likely won’t be quotable gems, but they will provide insight into what the subject feels are the most important and interesting points—providing a platform you can jump from with your own questions. Just be sure your subject isn’t guessing as to the purpose of the interview, or the submitted questions might be too unrelated to be useful.

- Ask "so what" until you get the right answer: Most scientists understand the value of their work in the context of the scientific community, not society, so it can be hard to pull out the impact (and interest) of their work. It might feel a little rude, but don't be afraid to ask your subjects why you should care about their results. I once invited a young scientist at an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle conference to tell me about his work. He focused on the resolution benefits of a new camera he helped develop. I asked him, “So what? What will intelligence personnel do with the improved resolution?” To him, better resolution was simply…better. It wasn’t until we’d gone through this kind of exchange five times that he revealed the real game-changer was the weight savings, which allowed the Air Force to collect more data by adding more sensors.

Writing about science can be intimidating, and while you may never need to write a pure science piece, the time may come when you will want to talk to a scientist about something you want to incorporate into your work. If you follow these tips, you can at least be confident you won't drive home in tears--and your readers won't be shedding any from boredom.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Wise words about not producing enough words

Once, writer Richard Hoffman, whose two workshops during my MFA program triggered a big surge in my craft, counseled me this way, when my father was dying and I was worried that my writing output was declining: "Life first, writing second."

I took his advice then, put down my pen and my overly rigid expectations of myself for a few weeks. I came through the other side, ready to produce new writing again, richer I think than if I had forced myself to keep to a normal schedule.

Now, I find myself coming back to Richard's advice again. I've been across the country for two weeks at my mother's hospital bedside, and I've been struggling (but managing) to keep up with my students and teaching obligations, and to turn in contracted, assigned writing projects. But I've also been struggling, and not managing, to continue to produce a thousand or so words a day for new memoir and essay pieces.

Richard's words come back to me and I have to remind myself of their wisdom and the gift of freedom they gave me four years ago. I may be absent from my usual output (and from the blog) for a while longer, but I have come to realize that unless I take on Life first, writing second – then what would I, as a nonfiction memoir and personal essay writer, have to write about anyway? Unless I attend to life as it unfolds, what could I possibly have to say that might matter to anyone else's life?

While I'm still away (in several ways), I invite you to skip through the blog archives, especially to the posts where I've passed on more of Richard's wise words about writing here and here. In comments, maybe you can also share your own ideas and experiences about how you manage, or don't manage, to write while in the middle of personal crises.