Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Guest Blogger Jesaka Long on How Blogging Improved Her Personal Essay Writing

I "meet" many writers online, and mostly it's a wonderful experience. We commiserate, congratulate, encourage, pick one another's brains. I learn something, maybe they learn something. What's not to like? Sometimes we're in touch for days, sometimes for years, and along the way I usually forget how it was we first crossed virtual paths. A recent new online writing acquaintance is Jesaka Long, a fellow essayist, and a freelance brand and marketing copywriter based in Denver. She’s also a drama editor for Conclave: a Journal of Character, and her nonfiction has recently been published in American Pressings.

Please welcome Jesaka Long

"Armed with enthusiasm, the support of my fellow classmates and three polished pieces, I emerged from my first personal essay class ready to submit, submit, submit. And you know what happened next: rejection, rejection, rejection.

And then more rejection. While I was grateful to receive responses—hey, at least someone was reading—I became discouraged. More than a year after my class, I was still unpublished.

Hungry to get my words in front of an audience beyond friends and classmates, I started a blog. One of my first posts was a short essay that I’d given up on placing. Since then, my writing has improved and I’ve finally secured that first yes.

I credit my blogging with helping me improve my creative non-fiction writing—and here’s why.

· Confidence: Growing an audience on my blog has boosted my belief in my writing ability. Knowing I’ve reached readers beyond those I can count on my fingers encourages me to keep trying, even as I continue to receive rejections.

· Feedback: When people—especially strangers—read my blog posts, I can get immediate feedback, both from comments and statistics. Some posts I thought would go unnoticed have been big hits, prompting heavy traffic and a high number of long, thoughtful comments. On the flip side, headlines I expected to generate good traffic flopped loudly, echoing in the silence that followed. It helps me identify how my words are reaching—or repelling—audiences.

· Habit: Before launching my blog, I was undisciplined, often relying on classes to force me to write on a regular basis. And, although it took me several months to develop a rhythm for writing and publishing posts, I finally settled into a three-times-per-week pattern. I consider this a writing commitment and it’s helped me develop better habits for drafting essays. While I may miss a post or word count goal occasionally, I’m writing far more regularly than I did pre-blog.

· Family Warm Up: I’ve yet to take any type of creative non-fiction writing class without someone asking how to handle work that includes family members. It was a concern for me, too, when I first started writing personal essays, because my family tends to keep its business under lock and key. By sharing short anecdotes about people in my life I’ve been able to gauge reactions. So far, it’s all been positive and, surprisingly, my family seemed to respond with, “well, we knew you were a writer.” It’s also helped that my cousin is a mommy blogger, so I do have a partner in storytelling crime.

I originally thought that a blog would detract from my writing time and focus, but it’s been just the opposite. While I will admit to being a little casual about blog posts (ahem, drafting a post while catching up on a favorite TV show), I’m now much more dedicated to—and protective of—my writing time. And my essays show it."

Note from Lisa: You can read Jesaka's blog here.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Writing and Prompt(ness)

Money changes everything.
Just like in the movies.
Small, medium, large.

Huh? (No, it's not bad poetry.)

The above are four of the daily writing prompts I sent to writers since the start of 2010. In early January, I offered to send anyone who signed up, a daily writing prompt, which I ordinarily send out only to those writers enrolled in one of my online or Rutgers classes.

It was almost always fun for me to think up the prompts, and it was always fun to hear back from writers about how they used (or avoided) them. What I didn't anticipate was how much the experience of choosing and sending out the prompts would impact my own writing. Looking back of course, how could I have expected otherwise? Every time I do anything for another writer – offer feedback, teach a lesson, share tips – I always get something in return; any energy I put out into the writing world invariably finds it way back in to my own work. An idea. A phrase. A new, unexpected angle. And I'm grateful for that.

Aside from the simple – but not to be dismissed – act of helping me start my work day, knowing I had about five dozen people waiting for the prompt each morning was a small happy thrill for me. Now, don't get me wrong. I never imagined for a minute that dozens of people were really waiting to hear from me, fingers poised on the keyboard, hanging on the inspiration my prompt may provide. Please. I know writers have lots of other things to do, and I realize many of those prompt emails may have been (purposely or haphazardly) ignored. That's okay, because even very early on I heard from enough writers who did find them useful, and that kept me going. When it was over, I asked participants to share their experiences.

Carrie Wilson Link wrote to say: "Two great months of prompts; they've been wonderful, and very helpful. I'm using the various prompts that really jump out at me to form my chapter outline for the newest book I'm working on, or rather, conceiving!"

Andrea explained: "I only wrote from one of them (pie), and saved all the rest for 'some day when I have more time,' until this past weekend when the person who was supposed to lead my writing group bailed last minute. When no one stepped up, I quickly opened the three most recent prompt emails, scribbled them in my notebook, and we did three free-writes using your prompts. Thanks for saving the day!"

From another writer: "I mostly saved the prompts for the future, because my writing time these days is devoted to a novel revision. But there was one prompt that, combined with a setting I've been playing around with and something about the novel I was reading at the time, sparked a short story idea. I haven't written it yet, but I've gotten some notes down and am hoping to draft the story soon."

Ann Newman, a retired teacher and writing student, had this to say: "As a student new to creative non-fiction I found the prompts provided a much needed 'kick in the pants' to write every day. I wrote the daily prompt at the top of a clean page in my notebook, left the notebook open on the kitchen table while I brewed my morning coffee, and returned, mug in hand, and started to write. Sometimes the prompt wiggled its way into my entry, other times the prompt just inspired me to recall an event or person. There were days I couldn't respond as deeply, but I still wrote the prompt on a clean page in my notebook and wrote short triggers off of the prompt. I am now revisiting the prompts to see what stories I can 'mine'. There were prompts that didn't resonate for me, so I wrote them in list form on a page in the back of my notebook for future reference."

A translator who received the prompts explained she was "putting the prompts in a 'writing' folder to use sometime. The only thing that really works to start me writing seems to be deadlines."

Along the way, I also published what two of the prompt participants wrote in response to particular prompts (here and here).

Another writer wanted to know about my writing process for the prompts. In general, I wanted the prompts to be a varied assortment to increase the chances that even if one day's prompt – or a few in a row—didn't speak to a writer, there would be another, far different one, landing in his or her inbox soon. One day it might be a short sentence, usually one that can be taken several ways ( I know all about it.), or a phrase, often one I would probably delete in a piece of writing for being trite or overused, but which surprisingly makes a good prompt (the best of friends). Another day it might be a provocative verb (judged), a noun with the likelihood of rich associations (vows), or an adjective just as likely to evoke positive as negative feelings (free).

In fall of 2009, when I began sending prompts to students, I simply sat at the computer each morning and wrote something, anything. By January, when I was sending them out to a far larger group, I spent some time each weekend generating a list of a dozen possible prompts for the following week. Often it was something which had recently crossed my mind (what took so long?), desk (required reading), kitchen counter (report card), or patience threshold (read all directions before starting). Occasionally, one of my kids contributed an idea (please stay in line).

For February, I was in a more playful mood and wanted to experiment with a theme, so I wrote all the prompts in one sitting, taken from the lyrics of Michael Jackson songs, which I was researching for a future article – from one-word snippets (Butterflies) to longer phrases (should have seen it coming). For March's prompts, I sat down in front of one of my bookcases and wrote down the titles of books – novels (Lost and Found), memoirs (Without a Map), essay collections (Money Changes Everything), and poetry (We Didn't Come Here For This) – which suggested they might resonate.

Right now, I'm between classes (two weeks until both the Rutgers and online classes start up again), so I'm only sending prompts out to two private writing coaching clients, and not every day. In a few days, however, I'll start a new list. I'll need eight weeks worth total, and am leaning toward using a theme again. (Sure, suggestions are welcome.)

Later in the year – perhaps summer time when many writers have more time to write – I'm thinking of offering the prompt project again to anyone who wishes to sign up. In the meantime, when I find myself floundering in my own writing, I flip open my prompt notebook and find one that I've usually forgotten all about. Yesterday, it was: The boys in the band. You see, once when I was a teenager on vacation in Miami Beach…..

Friday, March 26, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: March 26th Edition

► Thinking of self-publishing? Nathan Bransford suggests asking yourself these key questions.

►Jim Hines asked 246 novelists how they made their first book sale and whether they were “overnight successes,” how many years it took, if it mattered who they knew, how much perseverance played a part.

►As I noted last week, David Shields’s newest book, Reality Hunger, is getting a lot of attention for its unique structure, open reliance on other writers’ work, and predictions on the future of both fiction and nonfiction. He’s interviewed over at GQ.

►In a thoughtful post, novelist Jane Ward tackles why writers need social media.

►What do you want to write before your time is up?

►Used to be, freelance writers pitched ideas when they wanted to, to the editors they wanted to. Now, Jenny Allen describes an altered landscape.

►You’ve probably heard of National Novel Writing Month when, each November, tens of thousands of aspiring novelists commit to churning out a 50,000 manuscript. Now, the same folks are sponsoring Script Frenzy for the month of April. To date, 13,261 scribes have signed up to each produce a 100 page script.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Guest Blogger Pat Berry on her MFA Reading to Write Experience

While in college, my friend Pat Berry planned to be a writer until a post-graduation opportunity led her down the editing path. She became a specialist in children's magazines, her name appearing on the mastheads of Sports Illustrated for Kids, 3-2-1 Contact, and Muppet Magazine, among others. Fifteen years later, Pat left full-time editing to freelance and be around her own children more. She contributed to several essay collections including Over the Hill and Between the Sheets: Sex, Love and Lust in Middle Age, and Unbuttoned – Women Open up About the Pain, Pleasures and Politics of Breastfeeding. Now, at 50, her kids closing in on college, Pat's gone back to school to put writing first. Here, she shares a discovery made early in the program.

Please welcome Pat Berry.

Lately, I’ve been buying novels, memoirs, and biographies like a fiend and not leaving them on the nightstand to catch dust indefinitely. What inspired this reconnection with my bookish, 13-year-old self? Last fall I entered Columbia University’s MFA program in writing. The 50 or so books I’ve purchased since September are homework.

As you can imagine, we grad students are asked to churn out a substantial amount of original work on a regular basis. But the writing—my concentration is creative nonfiction—is on top of as many as 1,000 pages of published fiction and nonfiction reading we’re assigned—each week!

Of course, the authors are the really good ones—Woolf, McEwan, Didion, Orwell, Mailer, and Austen, among them—and the obvious objective is that some of their skill will rub off on us. Although I can’t speak to the transfer of creativity (what, and jinx myself?), I am almost up to date on the reading list. (Alas, the bookmark in last semester’s Low Life, Luc Sante’s dense study of New York City’s more sordid history, is wedged—likely for good—between pages 72 and 73.)

There’s plenty about this grad school experience that I could not have accomplished on my own. For one, the structure keeps me honest, and for another, a research internship offered by the university has opened new doors. But the epiphany happened when I realized that for years, inspiration had greeted me every morning, lined up neatly in a basket next to my clock radio, all but holding up the sign: “Read good stuff and your writing will benefit.”

Words all writers can live—and work—by.

Here’s a partial list of assigned reading that has filled my book bag and blown me away:

- Persuasion by Jane Austen (fiction)— Austen’s last novel and a standout for its older, less-maiden-like protagonist and appreciation for self-made men
- One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty (nonfiction)— Assembled talks about creativity by a writer known for her novels and short stories about the South
- Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (nonfiction)— Coming of age told through an English boy’s cataloguing of Arsenal football games
- A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr (nonfiction)— A Massachusetts town’s legal fight against an industry whose toxic dumping has had deadly consequences
- Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell (fiction)— Sharp take on a Cold War-era housewife’s discomfort with her mundane suburban life
- King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild (nonfiction)— Fast-moving narrative, alive with heroes and villains, about a tyrant’s exploitation of the Congo Free State
- Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters (nonfiction)— An unusual approach to writing biography, in this case about a homeless man
- Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi (nonfiction)— Matter-of-fact account of a young Italian’s year in a concentration camp
- Saturday by Ian McEwan (fiction)— Quite a bad day in the life of a London-based neurosurgeon
- Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov (nonfiction)— Dreamlike recollections of a pre-Revolution childhood in Russia and the √©migr√© years that followed

Pat is happy to answer readers’ questions about her MFA experience, and can be reached here.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

For readers, size matters. Especially between the covers.

A huge stack of books are on my to-be-read shelf. Of course. What writer doesn’t have one? I whittle the pile, but add to it at what seems like the same rate, so it never really diminishes. Fortunately in that pile are books of varying lengths and which require differing degrees of engagement, so that occasionally when I have a lot of other reading to do as well (books to review, a pile of student work to read), I can pull out a slimmer volume.

Which is how I came to consume the new memoir Lift by Kelly Corrigan, in about an hour one recent evening. I’m not sure memoir is the precise name for it, as it felt more to me like a long braided personal essay. Then again, I am not one to quibble about what we call the various forms of personal creative nonfiction. Corrigan, just as in her more traditional memoir, The Middle Place, is lyrically engaging and absorbing (you can read an excerpt from Lift here).

While the abbreviated length (89 sparsely set pages) seemed on the short side for a book, it felt just the right length for the particular piece she wrote. I finished a little teary, glad to have spent the hour in her company, and hungry for more – which is maybe the point. Aside from Corrigan’s literary gifts, surely her publisher was eager to quickly get something new on the shelf to follow-up the success of The Middle Place. And who can blame them? Were I lucky enough to be in Corrigan’s shoes, I’d have done exactly the same thing.

I also recently read Under a Wing by Reeve Lindbergh – yup, one of Charles’s daughters. Published in 1999, it’s a series of essays about various aspects of her life both as a girl and later, a woman. I came to this book because of how much I loved her mother, Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s, thin lyrical collection of short metaphoric essays, Gift From the Sea (1955), with its seashell and beach imagery drawing parallels to the stages of a woman’s life, motherhood and marriage. Reeve Lindbergh’s prose was surprisingly well constructed, and though not a linear narrative, she delivered a strong narrative sense threaded through the essays – something I’m struggling to embed in my own linked-essay memoir-in-progress. Today, UPS dropped off her later memoir, Forward From Here: Leaving Middle Age and Other Unexpected Adventures (2008), which landed – where else – in the to-be-read pile.

When I see a larger-than-usual block of reading time ahead – a vacation, a long train ride or flight, the flu – then I grab those thick books and/or the ones which I know I will have to read with more care. But I like having the thinner, quick-to-read ones in the pile too. Having an assortment at hand is a luxury, I know. And while my credit card and the online book retailers are on intimate terms, I wouldn’t even know how much a manicure or an “it” bag costs these days. Mind you, I wouldn’t say no to either one, on someone else's dime. It’s not that I’m opposed to luxury, only that mine typically arrives these days between covers (of any thickness).

Friday, March 19, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: March 19th Edition

Welcome and thanks to all my new readers! For those who don't know, on Fridays I toss up links I've come across all week, things writers might find useful, entertaining, informative, or just fun. It's called a Fridge Clean-Out in honor of the way I feed my family on Friday nights, using up everything that's accumulated in the fridge all week. Sometimes it's tasty, other times just edible, kind of like these Friday lists. Enjoy.

►The coming headache for agents and authors over rights in relation to enhanced eBooks, which are on the way, folks.

►A peek at a two-author couch-surfing DIY book tour.

►Authors must sell their books. On tour or not. Anywhere. Everywhere. Even if it makes the author herself uncomfortable.

►You’ve heard of Six Word Memoirs, right? For the brevity-challenged, now there’s Six Sentences.

►Need a writing prompt or a story starter? At this site, just slide your cursor over a number (from 1 to 346) and see what pops up.

► And finally, just for fun, try book review bingo, based on one writer’s list of the 20 most annoying book reviewing words and phrases.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Distraction Wanted: Rice to the Rescue.

I needed a little bit of distraction the other day, but not wanting to wander too far from what at least felt like work, I followed the advice of a friend who told me she often finds inspiration from authors on – yes -- youtube.

There, I found a series of short videos (most around one minute) of Anne Rice talking about her writing process, editing, good sentences, the right word, revisions, rhythm in writing, and so much more. You know, those one-minute videos do add up....

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Writer Making Nice. Not Always.

The other day, I posted my own personal “rules” about supporting other writers when they publish books. I got a lot of nice feedback about what a nice person I am and how nice it is that I support my fellow writers when something nice happens to them.

I’m not that nice. Oh, I do all of that stuff I said I do, but I also have my less-nice side. Witness: Yesterday I got an email from a friend who is a fledgling playwright. She had just received news that a fellow fledgling playwright was having her first work staged by a desirable company.

My friend wrote: "While I'm happy to report that I'm really thrilled for her, I just can't figure out why I'm now not so motivated to write."

To which I replied: Well, I know why. Here are just a few reasons, culled from my personal excuse library. Borrow at will. You are suddenly unmotivated to write, upon hearing of your writing friend’s success, because you are….jealous, envious, enraged, miffed, amazed (in a mean way), tired, tired of everything, suddenly tired of what you're writing, bored with everything, bored with the project, not confident, lazy, ambivalent, procrastinating, distracted, would rather watch TV or distract yourself online/cooking/eating/shopping, muse is on vacation, writing project seemed like a good idea at the time but now it seems stupid / lame / transparent / derivative, more fun to read what someone else wrote, can't escape thoughts that one will never be able ever again to write anything of value.

Listen, when I hear about a writer friend getting…an agent / a lovely book deal / a freelance job I wanted / a great teaching position / a new editing client with 600 pages and deep pockets / $3 a word for an article… I am simultaneously happy for my friend and also momentarily (occasionally not so momentarily) want to slash his or her tires. AND I also go into a non-writing-funk. I run through all the reasons in my mind why it should have been me. Why it will never be me. Why, even if it were me, it wouldn’t work out somehow.

Then, I eat some dark chocolate and get on with things. First thing: congratulate the friend. Nicely. Often, mean it.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Supporting the Authors in Your Writing Community

Writers talk a lot about being supportive of fellow writers. When a writer I know – a friend, colleague, acquaintance, former student, fellow group member, former classmate, online buddy (well, just about any writer I know in any way, I suppose), has a newly published, or about-to-be-published book, here’s what I do to be “supportive.”

▪Buy the book. This seems fundamental, but money must change hands, even if I’ve already read it in galleys or drafts. (Can you imagine if your friend opened a restaurant and you didn’t pay for a meal?) If the writer is selling it from his/her own site, then I order it there.

▪If feasible, buy more than one copy. I once bought five copies of a friend’s humorous book about aging, and gave them out to several relatives turning 60 that year.

▪Before it’s published, find a way to mention the book on my blog, with an appropriate link to the author’s site or a pre-ordering page. And when I say “mention” I mean in some context which also carries value for the other writers who are my blog readers.

▪Once it’s published, invite the author to do a guest post or an author interview on the blog, and point readers to author events in various locations. If the writer (and/or her publisher) wants to, run a book give-away on the blog.

▪Attend a reading or other author event if geographically possible. And bring another warm body (or several) along.

▪Ask local bookstores if they are going to stock the book; if no, suggest that they do so.

▪When the author posts something about her book on Facebook, hit the Like button or leave a comment (or the equivalent on another networking site).

▪On Twitter, post a link to a positive book review.

▪If the author is in need of more promotional opportunities in the geographic area in which I live, provide contacts or tips if I can.

▪If asked – and sometimes even when I’m not asked – offer inexpensive ideas for DIY book publicity (the old PR person in me never dies!). I pass along what I’ve stumbled across or hear about which might lead to coverage/invitations for the writer.

▪Only if it applies, try to use excerpts from their books in my writing classes. Rather than this being a case of the instructor indiscriminately flogging for her author friends, there is actually an advantage for students because I can ask the author a question (or 10) about writing choices and craft decisions and bring that insight back into the class discussion.

It isn’t always possible to do all of the above, of course, but I try. Why? So many reasons.

Camaraderie: Writing a book and getting it published is hard, and once a writer I know has labored and “given birth,” she can use all the help she can get to move it from shelf to readers’ hands.

Economics: Writers don’t make a lot of money, and if I can help boost a writer-friend’s bottom line, great. Writers need current and future readers, so if I can help, just a little, to expand the circle of prospective readers for another writer, that’s a good thing.

Community: I love being part of the literary community. I consider it part of the dues.

Celebration: Every time I do anything to help a writer friend whose book is now in the world, I feel as if I’m raising her or his hand in the air and applauding. Everyone could use more of that, no?

Connectivity: It’s a small literary world. I like pulling the threads tighter.

Curiosity: The more I support a writer friend during the period of her book being in production and post-publication, the more I learn about the process. The learning itself is cool, and I’m filing it away.

Paying it forward: One day, when (if?) my own book is published, perhaps some of those whom I’ve supported would be willing to do the same for me. A bit selfish? Maybe. But if I never publish a book, I’ll still be doing this for all the writers I know who do.

I should add that I do what I can even if I don’t love the book (it happens). Many other readers might and mind you, my aim is not necessarily to endorse the book, but to boost the writer’s efforts to get the book into the public eye. Readers are smart and can decide, based on their own interpretation of a book’s reviews and marketing copy, if it’s for them or not. If I do love the book, I say so. But I think it’s possible to be supportive of a writer as a colleague even if I don’t happen to love her subject matter or the publisher’s choices. I’m not providing book reviews, only pointing attention. (When I do write book reviews for other venues, it's not for a book by an author I know.)

In the case of featuring writer friends on the blog, I’m careful to only feature guest posts, and to design author interviews, which will provide substantial insights, advice, tips and hard-earned writing knowledge, to blog readers. And certainly, not every book and author who appears on the blog is someone I know. Hey, I know a lot of people, but the literary world is not that small.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Writing Education Resources Near and Far

New Jersey writers have a wonderful resource in the Rutgers University Writing Program Extension (a/k/a continuing education), which offers in-person, online, hybrid, and one-on-one writing classes and coaching situations, some three dozen in all. These include classes in fiction, business writing, poetry, creative nonfiction, basic foundational writing, grammar reviews, journalism, writing for children, grant- and scriptwriting.

Registrations for the upcoming Spring sessions are ongoing. The two classes I’ll teach this time around are Memoir and Creative Nonfiction Writing (hybrid – 4 Saturday morning classes on campus in New Brunswick, 4 weeks online); and Writing and Selling Nonfiction Pieces (5 Wednesday evenings on campus).

I’ve lived in New Jersey nearly my entire life and yet I didn’t even know about this program until several months before I was invited to teach in it. Shameful, I know. But my point is this: We are often conditioned – as either writers/students or writers/teachers -- to begin the hunt for local writing education resources and opportunities with community, county and smaller colleges. But it may be that there are hidden gems within the much larger university systems, as well. Many highly reputable institutions now also offer writing courses completely online. UCLA’s catalog of online classes, for example, presents a richly varied mix.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: March 12th Edition

Interesting reaction over on The Rumpus to David Shields’s new book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, which asserts, among other ideas, that the lyric essay and memoir will be the prevailing literary forms, since – yawn (this again?) – the novel is dead and narrative is nothing special.

►Over at First Line Fiction, novelist Lori Ann Bloomfield mixes in frequent posts to spur stalled writers: prompts, exercises, and suggested first lines to use as story starters.

► Ever wonder what goes on inside a “content mill”? Here's an in-depth description of the editorial work flow at Demand Media. Read it and weep.

►The first Book Blogger Convention (to be held May 28 in NYC) has a list on their site of all attendees with links back to all of their blogs. Mighty useful to have on hand if you’ve got a book to promote and are thinking of a DIY book blog tour.

►What do those numbers and letters on an ISBN mean anyway?

Mediashift takes a look at some of the less talked-about routes to, and outcomes from, self-publishing.

►Massachusetts writers may want to check out the very affordable Writer’s Day at Bay Path College, April 17.

►The Second Pass asked “voracious readers to recommend their favorite out-of-print book.”

►The Atlantic Wire’s Media Diet asks writers what media they consume daily and how, and what they’re currently reading. Anna Quindlen is the latest (and you’ll find links to Susan Orlean and others.)

►And finally, on-air reporters for Chicago’s WGN-AM radio station, owned by the financially teetering Tribune Company have been forbidden by the company’s CEO from uttering a list of 119 words/phrases he deems “newsspeak,” including( really): alleged, motorist, pedestrian, completely, youth, seek, at risk, campaign trail, reportedly. To be fair (which was also on the list), I did find a few I agreed with: fatal death, touch base. But really, Mr. CEO? Over at NPR, Ian Chillag used them all in one sentence.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Writer busy. Thinking about shoes. And other things.

When, on a writer's blog, things get quiet, it's usually either a very good sign, or we should be worried for the blogger.

Radio silence on the blog of a writer/editor/teacher can mean she is busy, busy, busy writing, editing, teaching. Maybe she's struck a creative vein and is on a productivity roll on her memoir manuscript, or maybe she's caught up with teaching, critiquing and interacting with the writers in her class(es), or she's prepping future lectures, or she's editing client manuscripts like mad, or fulfilling a paid writing assignment, or getting that interesting new writing coaching client launched.

Or else -- she's in a funk, is avoiding her keyboard, feels as if she has nothing meaningful to say to other writers (and maybe never will again), isn't interested in her own long-term creative projects, is letting student work pile up unread, is dangerously close to not meeting a deadline. Heck, maybe she is even looking for a job at a shoe store.

Happily for me -- although I've been acquainted with the latter scenario – it's the former which has been the reason I've been absent from the blog a bit lately. Lots going on, all burners firing on high, feeling professionally motivated, engaged, and energized. You know those weeks – everything seems to be working out at once. If you're like me though, that's both wonderful and a bit dreadful.

Oh, yes, I'm a "waiting for the other shoe to drop" kind of gal….wondering when the freelance work will slow down, if an editing client will pull a long range project, if the next class will get enough enrollments to run, whether a magazine will yank an assignment, when the older computer will crash.

Years ago, a therapist I was seeing (to deal with postpartum depression) once put a shoe next to the tissue box every time we had a session, as a reminder that most of the "shoe dropping" I kept waiting for was the product of my own outlook. Before I left, I had to pitch the shoe into the wastebasket. With enthusiasm.

I'm thinking of putting a shoe on my desk.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

One Writer's List Love List

I may be wrong, but I think most writers are, to some degree, list lovers. I am. In almost every area of my life, lists loom large. I have my generic to-do lists of course,but also my own version of a combination atta-girl / gratitude list. In my writing life too, lists rule. Perhaps a tour through the lists that litter my writing process will look familiar to you. If not, crib away.

The Brain Dump List. This one might not look like a conventional list, but it is. Brain Dump is the term I use to describe what happens when I first start dumping (into an electronic document or onto a notebook page) everything that occurs to me about a particular topic I plan to write about. I let it spew out in any order, and it usually makes for a helluva mess, disregarding every rule ever made governing grammar, punctuation, style or usage. It's a messy listy sort of thing much more than it's even a first draft. That comes next.

The Stuff to Include List. This usually comes after the Brain Dump, but it might also happen anytime during the initial few drafts. It feels more like a typical list and it's where I capture all the fragments which occur to me, ideas I need to expand and include in the next draft.

The Research Needed List. All those annoying factual items that need to checked. Or double checked. Sure, I could just highlight them on a draft, but I get a perverse pleasure from ticking them off a list.

The Reading List. This is not the list of books I want to read (there isn't enough paper in my office for that one). Rather, it's a list of essays, memoir pieces, craft articles, chapters, or other items I think would be helpful to read as I work my way through a particular piece.

The Tangent List. Also known as the This-might-be-another-piece List. As I work from draft to draft, I often notice ideas, thoughts, and nuances which resonate for me but just don't really fit into the current piece. Taken separately, however, they might lead to a different stand-alone piece. I've "discovered" many eventually successful pieces this way.

The Who Should Read My Almost-Final Draft List. This is usually a short one. A few trusted writer friends I'll ask to read and provide feedback. Since I don't currently have a regularly-meeting writing group, this list tends to shift from piece to piece. At first I thought this was a disadvantage, but lately I find it's useful to ask a very small group of specific people for feedback, selected depending on the subject of the piece and my writer friends' varying areas of interest, expertise and experience.

The Titles List. Unless a supremely appropriate title jumps out at me from the start, this list comes pretty late in the revision stage. At times, I've generated as many at two and three dozen possible titles for a piece, and other times the list had less than half a dozen options. Most of the possible titles on my list are lifted directly from the text – a phrase or word which seems to vibrate off the page.

The Places I'd Like to See it Published List. Pie in the sky, folks. At the top of the list go my current to-die-for byline venue. I make the list, in descending order, then I get real and make the….

Places to Submit It List. Everyone knows what this is. It's the more realistic version of the above. Sometimes however, I let them mingle a little and then when I am very lucky they intersect. Usually they don't. Still, if I hang in there, I get to make the...

Checks Expected and/or Publication Forthcoming List. But if not, then there is always the.....

Rewrite List. What's that they say about the end dictating the beginning?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Of winter, SAD, lists, and writing.

Here's just what a writer doesn't need: Seasonal Affective Disorder – that gloomy, depressive, lethargic feeling that overcomes many people (like me) in northern climates during winter months. Couple it up with the typical isolation of working at home alone and it's a wallop for writers.

Some winters I sail through only slightly scathed; other years I scramble to employ tricks involving sunlight and special lamps. This year I've see-sawed, and on the icky days I've resorted to My Lists. Not my to-do lists (though I have plenty of those), but the lists of good things which I may ordinarily overlook in my writing, career, and family. (A class is fully enrolled, an essay sells, a son performs confidently in a school presentation, my husband cooks two nights in a row, Mom sends just enough folding rectangular green paper in a Thinking of You card to cover the book store bill.)

This positive list-making grew out of a suggestion years ago when a therapist I saw during the "winter of 17 snowstorms," when I was dealing with postpartum depression, SAD, and a high maintenance baby, had me write a daily "good" list each night -- five things which had gone pretty well that day and/or that I was grateful for. Of course, true to my internal pragmatist (some say pessimist), I also kept a "bad" list of all the things I had screwed up that day, and stuff I wasn't grateful for (caused an infection while clipping the baby's nails, colic, burnt cookies).

I still keep both sets of lists, though not daily, and not always on paper. The good lists help me make it through the SAD (or other dismal) days and remind me I'll live to write another day. I've learned to (mostly) think of my bad lists in terms of lessons learned or stuff-I-can't-control-that's-life-shrug-it-off.

But I've also noticed that the "bad" list, especially the one I keep in my head, sometimes suggests interesting and often fun personal essay topics, which I address through humor -- such as when my big mouth got me in trouble with another mom, or when I procrastinated about holiday preparations, and my hatred of television sets in public places boiled over.

I also find other kinds of lists helpful during the writing and revision process, especially when I'm stuck in a piece of writing. I'm going to post about those lists later this week.

Are you a list maker in your writing life?