Monday, February 28, 2011

Author Interview: Laraine Herring on The Writing Warrior

I discovered Laraine Herring's first book about writing when I was doing a bad job of getting out my own way as a writer. Her words buoyed me. Since then, Laraine and I have connected online, I've invited her to guest post here before, and she remains one of the sanest voices I know when it comes to helping writers cut through the clutter in our own heads. Laraine directs the creative writing program at Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona, and is a novelist as well.

She has a new writing book out, The Writing Warrior: Discovering the Courage to Free Your True Voice. Here, in her own voice, she answers my questions.

Lisa Romeo: I loved your previous writing craft book, Writing Begins with the Breath: Embodying Your Authentic Voice. I was bowled over with how you connected the art and act of writing with so much else in a person's life. How, if at all, are the two books connected?

Laraine Herring: I think The Writing Warrior holds a higher level of accountability for the reader in relation to her or his own B.S. I think the tone of Writing Begins with the Breath is softer, more encouraging and more encompassing. With Warrior, I wanted to kick (gently) people into contact with their own tendencies and hopefully help them not only laugh at the ways they trip themselves up, but find the courage to face them head on without dissolving into shame and self-criticism. With Warrior, I wanted to emphasize personal responsibility to writing and to a writing life. Much of the writing life is in the valleys, not the peaks. Much of it is in between the sale, or the book signing, or the good review. What do you do in between those things? Those actions are what make you a writer.

LR: The title, The Writing Warrior: Discovering the Courage to Free Your True Voice, is interesting in itself. It conjures the idea of writing as something we need to gird ourselves for, and to me, also suggests that writing requires grit for the expedition of unearthing one's voice. What led you to this title, and what does it mean for you, both as a writer yourself, and a writing teacher?

LH: The warrior sequence in yoga has always been one of my favorites, and I think it’s often a misunderstood pose and phrase. Being a warrior is not all “rah” – not all yang energy. A warrior also must bend, must practice discernment, self-observation and awareness, and yes, that warrior must also be able to slice through her own illusions, but not in a destructive way, rather, in a way that makes the whole stronger. When you cut away the dead leaves on a plant, the plant grows stronger.

I think writers have to continually face unseen obstacles. The hardest part, in my observation of writing students and of myself, doesn’t occur in understanding how plot works or how characterization can develop; the hardest part comes in sustaining and maintaining a relationship to that writing, with all the ups and downs that any relationship of substance has. A warrior has staying power.

LR: You include a number of writing exercises throughout the book. I am a huge fan of writing exercises and writing prompts, both for myself, and for the developing writers I work with. Can you describe the role these activities can play in a writer's regular practice?

LH. I wish I could do my own exercises because I think they’re pretty cool, and I’ve seen them work quite well with students. I have books of writing exercises from other people (and I’ve subscribed to your Daily Writing Prompts) because I think it’s so important to maintain an element of surprise in your writing practice.

The reason my own exercises don’t work for me as well is because I’ve thought them through and I’ve (no matter how much I may try not to) formed some type of predetermined response to them. There’s no twist or surprise since I wrote them. When a teacher gives you a prompt and ten minutes, you’re free of all accounting and all preconception of what you should be doing. You truly get to play, and if play is a component of a regular writing practice, then you’re going to find a lightness throughout your writing time. I know it gets serious. I know we “angst” ourselves into misery. But we can also feel that sense of wonder, and the more familiar that is, the more our work is going to shimmer rather than sink.

LR. I was intrigued by your chapter "The Beginning is Not the Beginning," since it speaks to something I struggle with, and counsel other writers to address: not forcing the big idea in a piece, but instead working within the material and trusting the process. Why do you think writers fight against this more natural way of letting their work unfold?

LH. I blame it on grade school! But seriously, I think many people are taught to view writing as a product, and even worse, a skill that can be mastered and then pulled out at will to create something perfect on demand. We can memorize our multiplication tables and they’ll always work for us, but there’s no equivalent in writing. I think students and beginning writers often think there is, or should be.

Every semester students wail to me about how hard writing is and how they feel like they should be better than they are. They’ve never tried before, yet they think they should be perfect at it. That’s a damaging myth. No sane person in a first semester ballet class thinks they should be of the caliber to dance with Baryshnikov. Yet, people take one writing class and think they should be good enough for a publishing contract. I don’t honestly know why that’s so prevalent, but I keep seeing it.

I also think there’s a natural element of laziness to being human, and to write something well, we have to have patience and persistence. Those seem to be challenging qualities for many of us. I also think that people are often trained to have a big idea – they must have something to say. They must have a theme (shudder, shudder). So they get hung up on writing in the clouds rather than playing in the dirt. Writing is built from the ground up.

LR. You write, "Few things strike fear in the hearts of writers more than the notion of revision," and list some reasons -- laziness, self-loathing, disappointment at not getting it right the first time, not wanting to look deeper into the work and story, etc. I am continually amazed that newer writers resist revisions so strongly while accomplished writers revel in it (or at least understand revision's value and spend the time). How do you help writers develop an appreciation for revision and build the tools and mindset to make it a regular practice?

LH: In my beginning short story writing class, I require them to completely trash the first draft (they don’t have to burn it or anything!) They have to start their revision on a new, blank piece of paper. We devote a full class period to talking about this and talking them off the proverbial cliff. It’s harsh, I know, but I also know that I only have 15 weeks with them, and this is so uncomfortable that, left to their own devices, they’ll move a comma or two around and call it a revision.

I want to kick them into the unknown and give them a space to return to with something fresh. It works, though there is great weeping and gnashing of teeth. I also try very hard to emphasize that the first drafts are not the end. I try to help them see that each draft gives gifts and sign posts for what the next draft and ultimately the heart of the story could be.

If they can reframe the drafting process as something that is providing messages and clues to them about the story, that helps. If they think the drafting process is just fixing stuff until it’s right, we don’t have a great deal of success. I also try to emphasize the draft as communication between author and story, and that communication gets more refined and distilled as the signal gets stronger.

LR: You write about a time in your life when you and another writer phoned one another at 5:30 a.m. each weekday to check in and be sure you were both writing before heading out to day jobs. I'm a big believer in having writing accountability partners. Now that you've published several books, how do you track your own productivity and stay accountable?

LH: I miss my friend Jeffrey terribly. He’s been dead for three years now, and I have to say, it’s a hole in my writing and personal life. I have a great friend I share writing with, but Jeffrey was someone quite different. We didn’t critique each other’s work as much as demand accountability of one another for the act of writing. I won’t lie. It’s hard to maintain that for yourself alone. Everyone is so uber-busy now. We’re all teaching a gazillion students, trying to balance family and work, trying to write, struggling with health issues or aging parents, cut salaries – it’s hard. Jeffrey may be the only friend of this type I have in this life. So I imagine him calling, and I imagine what he’d say, and I often get up and write for him. He was only 45 when he died. I am 42. My dad died when he was 46. Time is short. I’ve framed my life around the phrase “memento mori” (remember you will die).

LR: I like what you say about the Illusion of Publication: "Your responsibility is to your craft and to the voice of your work. Keep your eyes there. When publication happens, it will neither unmoor you nor freeze you. It will just be the next right thing." Did you have any personal experiences with how publication either unmoored or froze you? And what do you mean by the "next right thing".

LH: For me, publication occurred at the right time. It didn’t occur when I wanted it to (ha), but it occurred at the right time. I already knew that it wouldn’t change anything other than I would have a book to share. I had been rejected for so very long that I learned my primary relationship was to writing, not to publishing.

“The next right thing” means exactly what it says. If you do the work of writing: read, write, revise, read, write, revise, solicit feedback, study the craft, etc, etc that work – that putting one word after the other with no attachment to an outcome, will result in the next right manifestation of that work. The book appears when the book is ready to appear. If the writer will focus on the practice, on the work, the results have a sneaky way of taking care of themselves.

LR: What do you hope, above all else, that a writer can take from your book?

LH: Respect the art.

Note from Lisa: Please visit Laraine's website and blog for further inspiration.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, February 25, 2011

If you're new here, nearly every Friday, I post links to items of interest to writers that I've stumbled across. Enjoy!

►Over at The Writers Alley, Christin Taylor makes some good points about writers and the blank page.

►Buy the whole issue, or buy one short story. That's the idea behind Found Press Quarterly, a new Canadian digital literary journal.

►Speaking of Canada, you can get your fill of information about the literary journal world north of the border at The Literary Type.

►There is now a poetry blog at the National Book Foundation. A new original essay will appear each weekday until May. They began with the year 1950 and are working forward, paying tribute to the 51 poets who earned a National Book Award in poetry over the past 60 years.

Though it wasn't often, whenever I was in New England, I'd enjoy Katherine A. Powers' column, A Reading Life in the Sunday Boston Globe. Now the column's been cut, but according to Galley Cat, I'll be able to find her at the Washington Post and Barnes & Noble Review. Here's an interview with Powers, from December.

►Finally, just for fun, A Book Inside looks at the unique and sometimes oddball rituals of 20 famous writers.

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Take that, lousy contract. There, I feel better now. Sort of.

I don't spend a lot of time here complaining about the writing life. Hey, I chose it. I'm here, most of the time, to connect with others who have also chosen to write. So I try to confine my complaining. Then, there's this…..

The other day, I get an emailed contract from a new website, and in between reading it on the screen, I'm also scanning email, and oh look -- an announcement that the site is now live! Funny I thought that was happening in two weeks.

I click over, check things out, look around the site and see…my essay. The very same essay to which the contract pertains. I wonder, am I old or just old fashioned in expecting contracts to arrive BEFORE publication?

A few hours later, I get another email. So sorry, it ways, but the dollar amount in the contract is, ahem, wrong. It's actually, you know, less money. About half as much. Not a problem, is it? And, oh yes, by the way, there is a new payment schedule – 60 to 90 days after publication, not 30.

Did I mention the contract's lousy terms, how the publisher wants to own – well, everything? Publisher, you know what, I have an idea, let's save us both some time: How about if you also take…oh I don't know, how about rights to my entire inventory of past, current and future pieces, all my current and future ideas, and all my notes too – hey, you never know, you might want to one day publish, resell, reassign, republish in any media, now existing or ever invented, without further compensation.

For the first time in my professional life, I pick up the phone and tell a publication where to stick their contract. I say take down the essay and they do. I don't feel much better. But I think I will.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Writers: Start Your Exercise Engine

Every month or so, when email coupons arrive, I order a few books about writing. I mine them for new insights and examples to share with my writing students, and read them to expand my own craft development. Some of my favorite writing books are sprinkled with writing exercises, tips, suggestions and "assignments."

One new purchase was Writing Life Stories: How to make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature, by Bill Roorbach, the paperback edition of the successful 2008 hardcover. I especially like his exercises, many of which are infused with the wit and grit of his entire book.

In a chapter titled, Saying it Right, he discusses the importance of assembling words and utilizing language in precisely the right way for your writing project. The beginning of the instructions for an exercise he calls Forget About Style goes like this: "In this exercise you are to throw a fit – perhaps you're furious because of the latest round of rejections slips, a stupid reading from a friend, Cheetah ran off with Ken – throw a fit and kick the pieces of your style kit around the frat house while the drunken brothers yell…."

Later, he talks about the motion, musicality and rhythm of writing, how our words must sing. This reminds me of a writing professor I once had who insisted an essay of mine needed more of a beat, that she should hear a BAM every few lines. Since she said that, I've always read my work aloud and listened carefully for the beats, the rhythm, and – though I never called it this – as Roorbach says, the "motion" in the flow of words.

Roorbach offers this exercise: "Tap Your Feet. Pull out the work of a favorite writer, and read it listening and feeling for the rhythm and rhythms. Tap your feet as you read out loud. Look for repeated words or phrases that set up a beat. Listen for sentences that rise, sentences that fall…." He goes on to suggest doing the same for another writer, and noticing the rhythm differences, and then giving your own work the same treatment.

I've been doing this sort of thing for several years, usually when I'm home alone. If I try to do this when my family is around, even if I close the office door – maybe especially when I close the office door – they begin muttering about how writers really ARE crazy.

Go ahead – get crazy with your words, too!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, February 18th 2011 Edition

►Worried that maybe you use one favorite word or one particular phrase too frequently? Check your prose over at WriteWords to find out.

► Over at Daily Finance, Karen Dionne tells all about foreign rights.

► In case you haven't followed the discussion about the distribution of work by women vs. men in literary magazines, here's the Vida post which started it all.

►If you like writer-centered link round-ups like this, try the 20-links lists over at Writer's Rainbow.

►And Erika Dreifus lists links to some post-AWP conference reactions.

►To what commuting lengths will some folks go to complete their education. Check out this writer's (gorgeous but trying) commute.

►If, like me, you enjoy the work of writer Hope Edelman, check out her relaunched blog.

►On Twitter, people with strong opinions about possible editorial fallout from the Huffington Post/AOL merger are posting under the hashtag #huffpuff. One positive outcome are the tweets directing writers to less well-known (paying) online venues to pitch/submit online news and features.

Have a great weekend.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Guest Blogger Allison Gilbert on her new book, Parentless Parents, and writing about family in nonfiction

Months ago I invited Allison Gilbert – who I like in person as much as I do as a writer – to guest post here in support of the publication of Parentless Parents: How the Loss of Our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise Our Children (Hyperion). Allison chose to present an excerpt from the book along with insight about the process of writing about her personal life and family members in the pages of her nonfiction. As it happens, this coincides with the start yesterday of an online class of mine in which we are addressing writing about loved ones. I love coincidences like that.

Please welcome Allison Gilbert.

For the last few years, in my work as a writer, I’ve revealed some exceptionally private details about my life and exposed equally intimate stories about my husband and his family. I don’t omit the kind of information that might make a more private person cringe. I feel a great need to tell my story honestly. Why else go through the awful pain of writing? But the reality is, I am quite aware that the people I write about, these characters I create on the page, are the very same individuals I need to pass cranberry sauce to on Thanksgiving, and that makes the type of writing I do, complicated.

My family has been very supportive of me, and nobody has ever asked me to omit passages from my work they could easily have found objectionable.

And right there, in that last sentence I just typed, is the key to getting away with what I do: I show them what I’ve written before any comma, period, or colon gets printed. They don’t have editorial control, but they deserve to know what’s coming. Being blindsided would be uncomfortable for anyone.

Interestingly, the facts I write about never seem to be in dispute. I’ve never had to wrangle with a family member that a certain conversation actually took place. What does differ (and what often prompts the most interesting reactions) is how the same events or conversations often made each of us feel so differently.
My father-in-law once said something to me in passing, for example, that meant absolutely nothing to him – but hurt me so deeply I could never bring myself to talk with him about it. Years later as I was writing Parentless Parents, I decided to write about what he said. Instead of causing friction between us, bringing it out into the open through my writing brought us closer. Ultimately, I’ve found, the key to writing about my family has been showing them that I love and respect them enough to include them in the process.

This excerpt, taken from Chapter 7 of Parentless Parents, is an example of taking an exceptionally private moment public. My husband and I had gotten into a wicked fight about his mother, the kind of conversation you would never want your mother-in-law to hear. When it was finally time for me to show her the following passages, I held my breath until she finished reading.

The worst fight Mark and I ever had ended in a volcanic explosion of Doritos. When the neon dust finally settled, it seemed not an inch of our kitchen floor was clean. Days later, I was still sponging orange powder from the cereal cabinet and silverware tray. Our argument began because I didn’t want Mark’s mother coming over to our house – again. Marilyn is a wonderful mother-in-law. Warm. Loving. A fantastic grandma. But on that day, at that minute, I had reached my in-law limit.
It was July 4th weekend, and we’d just spent nearly the entire holiday with Mark’s family. We had gotten up early Saturday morning and gone to New Jersey to spend the day with his mother and our two nieces at his sister’s house. That night, after Mark’s mom headed back to her home a few miles away, we went with all the cousins to see fireworks with Mark’s dad and stepmother.
Sunday morning, we were at home finishing a late breakfast when the phone rang. Mark went into our bedroom to find the receiver (it’s cordless and we constantly lose it) and within minutes he returned to the kitchen and gleefully announced, “Grandma’s coming over in an hour, guys!”
"Today?!” I asked, clearly not thrilled with the idea.
“She just has a little laundry to do,” Mark explained. At the time, Marilyn lived in an apartment building about 25 minutes away and came over about twice a month to do a load or two and see her grandchildren.
“Can’t she come over next weekend?”
“All-i-son,” he said in exasperation. Mark pronouncing every syllable of my name is the verbal equivalent of putting his foot down -- which only angered me more. I shot him a look that I had hoped Jake and Lexi didn’t see. My voice began to rise.
“Can’t we just have a day to ourselves?”
“No, Allison. She has laundry to do to-day.”
“But I want to spend the day with just you and the kids. Just us!” Jake and Lexi were at this point looking up from their plates and I was uncomfortably aware that they were hearing me say that I didn’t want their grandmother to come over. But I couldn’t help myself. To the core of my being, I didn’t want her to come over. Marilyn’s the one woman who reminds me most of my mother’s absence, and on that day I just needed a break.
“She’ll only be here for a few hours!” Mark yelled, clenching his fists into tight, violent balls.
Mark is generally easy-going and hard to upset, and for the first time since I’d known him, I was scared he was going to punch his hand through the kitchen window. But I didn’t relent. I couldn’t. “We spent all day with her yesterday! Please,” I pleaded.
Mark was furious, and I knew it was all because of me. And while he didn’t strike the glass as I had feared, he started pummeling the unopened bag of Doritos on the kitchen island. He punched it again and again until pulverized chips spewed everywhere. Instantly I was sorry for what I had done – mostly because Jake and Lexi saw and heard everything.

So how did my mother-in-law react when she read these passages? Was she angry with me? Offended? No, it turns out these potentially hurtful words made her feel closer to me. For so long, she said, I’d kept her in the dark, and refused to let her “in.” Ultimately, these passages sparked a thread of conversations we never would have had otherwise. And it’s because of them – that my mother-in-law have never been closer.

Note from Lisa
: Learn more about Allison’s new book Parentless Parents by watching the book trailer on YouTube. Allison is also the founder of Parentless Parents, a new and growing nationwide network of parents who have experienced the loss of their own mothers and fathers. You can join the conversation by visiting Parentless Parents on Facebook. If you would like a free signed copy of Parentless Parents, leave a comment here by midnight February 21 (US postal addresses only); one name will be drawn at random.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Reading (Way) Outside My Comfort Zone

I like to read outside my comfort zone from time to time, and when I do read a book, or even part of one, which I wouldn't ordinarily pick up, I always learn something.

Readers of this blog know of my interest in song lyrics and the people who write them. While waiting for my son to finish a chess club event at our library the other day, my eyes fell on Decoded by Jay-Z.

In the book, the rapper and hip hop star offers analyses of his own lyrics, interleafed with anecdotal reminiscences of coming of age in the Budford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. I'm pretty certain Jay-Z had a ghostwriter, and she's kept the star's voice on the page (for better and worse, depending on each reader's taste).

I read the first 40 pages in between doing a zillion other things – one of which was compiling a lecture on nonficiton writing that involved working with memories that seem elusive or incomplete. One of my points is that in many cases, it's often more interesting to the reader – and certainly more honest – for the writer to put our own misgivings about the quality of our memory right on the page, to write the memory holes into the prose. I know I have many examples of this on my bookshelf.

But before I had a chance to look for them, there, on page 4 of Decoded, I stumbled across one example of working with a fragmented memory. Jay-Z is describing the first time he saw a rapping rhymer in action, on a street corner in his rough-and-tumble world (bold mine):

"...Like the day I wandered up to something I'd never see before: a cipher – but I wouldn't have called it that; no one would've back then. It was just a circle of scrappy, ashy, skinny Brooklyn kids laughing and clapping their hands, their eyes trained on the center. I might have been with my cousin B-High, but I might have been alone, on my way home from playing baseball with my Little League squad. "

He can't remember who he was with or where he was going, so he shares that with the reader, suggesting likely scenarios based on the activities he does remember doing frequently (being with B-High, walking home from baseball). He didn't know what to call the thing he'd come across, though later he learned the word (cipher), but he tells the reader about his ignorance at the time of the incident. Both are better decisions, sharing with the reader what the author doesn't know, than either skipping the incident altogether, or fleshing it out with details he can't stand behind or couldn't have known at the moment.

As for the book in its entirety, I may not get to page 317. I know only a handful of Jay-Z's recordings, so I can't comment on whether his meditations on, and explanations of the lyrics, jive with what I thought the lyrics meant (or if I really want to go there). I don't have an opinion on whether hip hop lyrics are a new and important poetic form. Or even if I like the guy.

I'm only saying that when I read outside my comfort zone, it makes me think. Sometimes, I read more carefully. That's always a good thing for a writer.

Readers, what have you read lately that's outside your comfort zone?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, Feb. 4, 2011 Edition

Stats are telling me I have a bunch of new readers – so, Welcome! On Fridays, I post links for writers – an entirely eclectic and personal assortment of what I've stumbled across and think may be useful, interesting, intriguing, odd and sometimes, funny. Enjoy!

►In this interview over at Second Act, novelist Terry McMillan describes what happened to her characters while in revision stage for one of her novels: "With each subsequent rewrite, I changed it to be more about them and less about me." So many other good insights in the piece too.

►This weekend, when so many writers in Washington, D.C., at the annual conference of AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs), taking a look at the toll the modern writing rat race takes seems particularly apt. Amber Sparks evaluates and decides to step off the maddening treadmill of write fast / publish frequently / share & promote your published work like mad online / write about your writing / then do it all again. (hat tip Cathy Day via Practicing-Writing). Also, read Cathy's post about AWP and anxiety.

►Regular readers of this blog know that I have a thing about the art of writing song lyrics. I simply find it fascinating and therefore loved this piece in the New York Times about how a budding songwriter sought help from a Pulitzer Prize winning poet to improve his lyric writing craft.

►Speaking of poetry, O, The Oprah Magazine's April issue will spotlight poetry, in recognition of National Poetry Month. I feel divided about this. A monster mainstream magazine spotlighting poetry is a good thing, right? But they're planning to mix celebrity poetry with that of recognized poets. And their choice of guest editor? Not a poet, but Maria Shriver. I get that she's (apparently) a lover of poetry, but I wonder – for a magazine devoted to empowering women and recognizing their achievements, might it be a better idea to bring a real live female POET on board to edit the issue?

The Atavist presents long-form journalism on the iPad, iPhone, iPodTouch, Nook, Kindle and other platforms. Since I don't have any of those devices (yet) I can't personally vouch for the content, though people I trust say they've read engaging pieces of good quality there.

► This one has been in my Friday Fridge Clean-Out hopper for a while and I don't know why I haven't passed it on sooner: Nathan Bransford on writing better dialogue.

► There seems to be something for every kind of writer over at Working Writers, from interviews with mainstream novelists to profiles of poets, tech tips, productivity discussions, and explorations of craft.

►One of my writing coaching clients tipped me off about Sentence First: An Irishman's blog about the English Language. Word and language geeks could waste some real time over there.

►Library Journal's list of five notable memoirs which will debut over the next three months, is now up.

►And finally, while you're waiting (and waiting…) to hear back on submissions to literary journals, you could catch up on reviews of the journals themselves, plus a little (or sometimes, a lot) of writerly jabs in their direction over at the Review Review. (Be sure to read the About page.)

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Write. Submit. Wait. Write. Submit. Wait.

I'd like to share with you a writing experience I had a few months ago.

Here's what happened. Back in February 2010, after making a list of 10 literary journals I thought would be good homes for a particular piece, I submitted a 6,000 word segmented narrative essay to the first six. By June, three had passed (and so I promptly sent it out to the next three on my list). In September, on a Sunday morning, I received an email from the nonfiction editor of one of the journals – a biggie.

She loved the piece, she said, and was looking to fill a slot in an upcoming issue, already in full production mode, but that opening was for a 2000 to 3000 piece. If I wanted to preserve my piece in its 6000-word form, she'd hold on to it and put it into the next round of editor readings, to see if it would again make the preliminary cut for a future issue. But, she and another nonfiction editor were most intrigued with a particular 7 pages (out of 19) of my piece. Would I consider shaping an excerpt around those pages? Oh, and could I do so by Thursday?

This is a literary journal in which I'd feel honored to have my work published; it has a reputation for presenting finely crafted pieces by writers I admire. Of course I would do it. But. Going from a 19 page piece to a 9 page piece poses a boatload of prickly challenges. Then again, it was written as a segmented essay anyway, meant to be digested in chunks. How hard could it be? Huh.

She and I talked it over, and we decided I had two choices: Present the sections she liked most on their own, with no introductory or concluding text, just a line noting it's an excerpt from a memoir-in-progress; OR, lift the segments and create a new opening and a new, condensed ending. For various reasons, mostly to do with preserving the overall tone, I opted for the latter.

Fortunately I love revision. I enjoy deconstructing my prose and finding new ways it might also work. I like the challenge of saying more – or at least as much – in fewer words, and in a more finely fitted form. Give me a deadline, an editor who's sharp and supportive, the chance to crack an admired publication (and some dark chocolate) and I'm a happy camper. Still, you'd think it would be simpler. After all, we're only talking about writing a page or so new material, to be shaped around existing prose, right? Right.

Thing is, when I was able to see the 7 pages on their own, I realized that for a new opening and ending to work, I couldn't just condense the segments which had originally come before and after. I found I had to put aside the existing other 12 pages of prose, though they did guide me. In the end, when I got done hating every new word, I eventually loved (almost) every word.

The more I departed from my original words, phrases and images, and my original idea of just how long the piece "should" be, the easier it got. Which reminds me, yet again, how much more we are capable of as writers if only we can get out of our own way. Sometimes getting out of our way means starting with blank pages, new ideas, and fear.

I finished and sent the piece off. And heard nothing for days, then for two weeks, which surprised me only given the urgency the editor had initially implied. I sent a follow-up email and the reply seemed to suggest she'd forgotten what she had asked me to do. (Journal editors are busy and overworked, I get it, I do.) I explained again, and was advised to wait. I did, for another few weeks, and then was told it was going "up a level," for the approval of her editor-in-chief. It could go either way.

It went the wrong way.

I considered that I may have made the wrong choice, that I should have simply lifted the 7 pages she liked, labeled it an excerpt, and left it at that. Was it a case of my thinking I knew better than this editor, who perhaps was, between the lines, telling me what I should do? Then why had she given me a choice, I wondered. Because she's a good editor, who respects writers, that's why. And I'm a bit thick.

I pouted for a bit. Vowed to never submit there again, or to submit anything again, anywhere, ever.

Then I realized: Now this work has two incarnations, and I'll have two similar but different pieces to submit (again!) to another round of journals. Maybe the new, shorter form will open opportunities at journals that won't publish 6000 word pieces, which I had previously ruled out based on what I had decided was the piece's "final, finished" form. It took an editor I'd never met, who'd never read my work before, to notice something that was right under my nose – the clarity and tightness of those particular 7 pages.

In the end I had to admit I'd learned something (actually a few things) and not just about how to be nimble and flexible in the crazy world of literary submissions, but also about what it takes to re-imagine a piece of work, even after it's "done," and about how important it is to embrace the discipline of revision as something that not only gets the job done, but which contributes to one's craft.

The piece is still circulating to other journals in its original 6000 word form, AND it's also now circulating to other publications in its new 3000 word form, AND its been submitted also in its 2000 word excerpt-with-no-explanation form. And so we wait...

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Author Interview: Erika Dreifus on her short story collection, Quiet Americans

Sometimes, a particular writer friend comes along at a perfect time, and through that friendship, that writer seems to "answer" for us questions we didn't even know to ask. Thus it was with Erika Dreifus, with whom I first connected through her excellent blog. Since then, we've stayed in touch, met up at writer conferences, shared meals, and she even showed up at my first poetry reading (now that, believe me, is a true writer friend!). I am completely thrilled her debut short story collection, Quiet Americans, has just been published. I'm not in the habit of praising a friend's book simply because it's a friend's book; with that in mind, let me simply say I loved every single story, paragraph, sentence, phrase and word.

Lisa Romeo: We all know the old advice: Write what you know. And its corollary: Write what you DON'T know about what you know. In this collection, I get a sense of you maybe starting from what you know (family stories and history), and then exploring what you wish you knew, what you suspect you might know but really don't know, and even what you want to know but perhaps might prefer not to know. Does any of that make sense to you as you look back over your motivations and inspirations for the collection?

Erika Dreifus: First, Lisa, thank you so much for conducting this interview. I am a longtime fan of Lisa Romeo Writes (and Lisa Romeo, Writer), so this is a true privilege for me.

Yes, your comments make quite a lot of sense! In many of these stories, I began with something that I knew, but built a story based on what no one had spoken about, or what I'd been left wondering. For example, I've written elsewhere about the kernel of truth that inspired the opening story, "For Services Rendered": a factoid recounted by my paternal grandmother about a German-Jewish refugee pediatrician she met here in the United States. "For Services Rendered" was definitely motivated by my ruminating over the backstory, which I didn't know, and which, by the time I began drafting the piece during my last semester in my MFA program, I could no longer discuss with my grandmother, as she had passed away a year earlier.

LR: As a Christian and an Italian-American, I have no experience hearing Jewish family stories about atrocities of World War II. As I read these stories, however, I found that while the specific context is of course paramount to their meaning, the larger issues -- of human compassion, justice and the delicate nature of family history – were extremely universal. Was that a consideration for you when writing, to be sure the shared human themes were clear?

ED: I think that many of the motivating questions—the things, to borrow your phrasing above, that I wished I knew, or that I suspected I might know but didn't really know—are, in fact, universal. At their core, they are questions about why an individual makes the choices s/he does, and how one's actions can radiate out and affect others in unexpected ways. I'm not certain that these were conscious considerations for me while I was writing, but I'm very glad to have discovered them in the end.

LR: I keep wanting to say this book is such a "great read," but that sounds almost too close to saying it was "entertaining," which I was afraid sounded belittling. But as a reader, it was so engaging, in a literary sense – I did not want to stop reading at the end of each story – and yet I wondered if it was okay for me to be deriving "entertainment" value from a book about such important (and harrowing) issues. Does that make any sense to you?

ED: Well, thank you, Lisa. And yes, I think that I can understand what you’re saying here. I’m encountering some similar feelings, for instance, as I am signing books. Somehow, I shrink from inscribing anything such as “Hope you enjoy the read! J”

But I'm certainly not the first person to write about harrowing issues. To the extent that as writers, we learn about craft from reading, I have learned from others’ examples. The writer has to be careful: You don’t want to drive the reader away.

A current example from the film world comes to mind: Right now, I’m avoiding “Black Swan,” because I just don’t think that I can tolerate watching it. Your response to my book—appreciating the intensity but also being able to remain immersed—is, to me, far more preferable (although it appears that “Black Swan” is doing just fine without me!).

LR: As someone who suffered two serious bouts of postpartum depression, I was gripped by the story, "Matrilineal Descent," in which a character in the 1910s suffers from the condition, and its long-reaching effects on her descendents. I also especially loved the directness you attained by the partial second-person point-of-view. The story seemed to be not so much about PPD itself, but about the absence of it from the cultural conversation. What got you interested in that theme for a story? And how did you arrive at the double POVs?

ED: Here we return to the matters of source material and motivating questions. Like the situation of European Jews under Nazism, but on a much quieter and more private scale, postpartum depression is also a significant part of my family history and inheritance. In its own way, it left me with as many questions and anxieties as the more public history did.

This specific story grew out of emotions and questions attached to my paternal grandfather's life and, more specifically, the circumstances surrounding the death of his biological mother (my great-grandmother) the summer after he was born. There's been postpartum depression on both sides of my family tree, and I've thought about changes in awareness and treatment over time, and how all of that has played out across the generations. So I think that your point about the story's emphasis on a certain phase in that history—a time when both awareness and treatments were rudimentary at best—is right on.

As for the POVs: that's something I'm not certain I can answer. Again, there were things I knew, or was able to discover, and there were things that remained far more elusive to grasp or write about. In some way, I think I needed the additional POV as a way to help me mediate the distance between those two realms.

LR: Many characters, and/or their descendents, appear in several stories, and in places the collection feels like a segmented novel. Yet other stories are completely independent (or did I miss something?). When you were writing, were you intentionally linking the stories, or did you find that certain characters simply kept showing up (or wouldn't leave you alone)? And later, when you were assembling the stories for this collection, how did their inter-relatedness influence which ones you chose and where each would occur in the book physically?

ED: You're quite right, and you didn’t miss anything!

Several of the stories—but not all of them—are linked by characters and family ties. And I've written other stories featuring members of this extended family, many of which have been published in journals and magazines but are not included in Quiet Americans. Somehow, a collection comprising only stories about these characters didn't really come together.

Initially, I was a little squeamish about including only some linked stories. But I gained some confidence when I read Yes, Yes, Cherries, a wonderful collection by Mary Otis (Tin House Books, 2007), in which some, but not all of the stories feature the same protagonist over time.

As for the assembly process: Looking back, I've realized that two literary agents who expressed strong and sustained interest in earlier iterations of the collection were instrumental in helping me select and order the pieces that have gone into the final book. For that, I am extremely grateful.

There's a chronological thread, too, and perhaps it's the academically-trained historian in me that was pulled to this structure. More specifically: The first three stories are set before or during World War II, and the last three stories take place in the first several years of 21st century. The middle story—the fourth of the seven—is pretty much set at a midpoint, in 1972.

LR: Related to that, when writing, do you use any kind of physical or electronic document, family tree, or other device, to keep relationships, time periods and other elements clear and correct?

ED: This is a terrific question, but I have to say that no, I don't use those devices. Which means that I'm especially glad that my publisher/editor caught an inconsistency or two as we progressed toward publication!

LR: The second person POV again, in the story "The Quiet American, or How to Be a Good Guest," for me at least, seems to suggest a bridge (a blurring?) between fiction and nonfiction. While I understand that fiction is only in part reliant on the author's live, that story especially struck me as one that may have had roots in a personal experience. Care to comment?

ED: Yes, there are definite autobiographical components in that story. For example, like the narrator, I did visit Stuttgart in the summer of 2004. I, too, have a terrible sense of direction. And I did, indeed, sign up for a bus tour of the city.

But other elements of that story are entirely invented, and one major thread is borrowed (a much nicer word that "stolen," don't you think?) and adapted from a travel experience in Germany that a dear friend shared with me over a meal a shortly after my trip. This is part of what is so alluring to me about fiction-writing: the opportunity to combine fragments of personal experience, research, what we learn from others, and what we imagine, and create something new and whole in its own right.

LR: I loved the final story, "Mishpocha," in which a man learns he not be quite who he thinks he is; it seemed to tie together threads you explore in the stories that come before. It feels current, since he traces ancestry online, but it's timeless too, the idea of searching for truths we may not eventually want to confront; and you weave it so beautifully into a larger family story. When I read a story like that, I often wonder about the initial drafts and the writer's intentions in the early stages, whether the writer always intended to have these two parallel narratives in the same story, or if that emerged during the process of drafting two separate ideas?

ED: Well, here's a variation on the recipe I just mentioned: Take a discovery, add some research and a dash of personal experience, and mix thoroughly with imagination.
I definitely had more than one idea from the start, but it took awhile for the strands to sort themselves out. First, I'd been captivated by a newspaper story that ran in the Boston Globe during the summer of 2006, about a man who had pursued his family history and genealogy for decades avocationally. He took immense pride in his family heritage, and was stunned to learn around age 70—his mother was in her nineties when she revealed the information—that he'd been adopted. (Jewishness, by the way, was not a part of this particular story.) I clipped the story and put it aside.

About a month after that article appeared, I attended a Jewish genealogy conference for the first time, and that's where I discovered the advances in DNA technology that are referenced in "Mishpocha." In one session, a panelist recounted a true story about someone who learned through this technology that the man he'd considered to be his father was not, in fact, his biological parent. And I just sat there in the audience thinking: That is a story.

So those elements emerged not quite, but almost, simultaneously. And at some point shortly thereafter, as I processed other aspects of the genealogy conference and considered, yet again, the impact of Nazism and the Holocaust on successive generations, the story came together.

LR: As someone who is being published for the first time in book form, did your perception of yourself as a writer shifted at all during the post-acceptance and pre-publication process? Do you now have different writing goals and thoughts about what's possible for your writing future, than before you were able to claim the title, "author"?

ED: It would be great to nod and smile and answer confidently and affirmatively here, but the truth is that I still don't quite know what to expect or hope for from this book's publication. Last Light Studio approached me quite unexpectedly, at a time when I'd long since accepted (and, to a considerable extent, come to appreciate) the ways in which my writing life had turned out to be quite different from what I had envisioned back as a beginning MFA student. So I'm taking a wait-and-see approach here. Time will tell.

Note from Lisa: A free signed copy of Quiet Americans will go to one person chosen from those who leave comments to this post by midnight, Feb. 8 (must have U.S. postal address). Erika is donating a portion of her proceeds from the sale of Quiet Americans to The Blue Card, which supports survivors of Nazi persecution and their families in the United States.