Friday, May 20, 2011

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, May 20, 2011

►Do you hate the smell of rejection in the morning? So do these guys but they have a suggestion.

►I'm guessing every high school English teacher and college freshman comp instructor is groaning over the idea of "logical" punctuation.

►If your fiction is plodding along, maybe your plot needs help. Check out the Plot Whisperer blog's author interviews.

►I missed this minor brouhaha, but apparently there was an uncommon event at the White House – a Poetry Workshop for 77 young poets. Some folks got a bit upset.

►Interesting article on the evolving intersection of blogs, vlogs and tweets, what their authors bring to the reader/viewer conversation, and traditional publishers. Maybe we all need one another after all?

►Sometimes what's good for what ails you, at least if you are a reader, is a "devastatingly sad" book, perhaps one on this list. What's yours?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Writers: When offered help, do you say YES?

A few years ago at a writing conference, I took a master class with a writer who'd published novels, memoirs and essay collections. About 12 writers met with this author for several hours over two days for a combination of lecture, discussion and workshop. The second day's class focused on the first two pages of a manuscript, with each of us reading ours aloud for feedback. At the end of the session, the author offered to take another look at any two-page rewrites that resulted; all we need do is email them to him with a reminder note.

I thought he was maybe just being polite, or that he'd send back a standard perfunctory reply along the lines of "Good work and good luck." I figured he must be too busy anyway. Then weeks went by. A few months. And when I did finally think about following through, I decided he probably wouldn't even remember making the offer.

Then one day when I was feeling particularly miserable, his card found its way to the top of my messy desk. A week later, I'd rewritten those two pages based partly on his critique and hit send, reasoning the worst that could happen was he'd ignore my email.

Three days later, I got a response – several paragraphs on precisely what he thought I'd done well in the rewrite, and a few more specific suggestions for further development. And at the end, a P.S. "You are the only writer in that class who took me up on my offer. Actually, I've made that offer about four times in the last two years, and have only heard from two writers, you included."

I was floored. What idiot writer would pass on the opportunity to get further feedback from a writer of this man's stature, at no additional cost? Well, me, almost.

I thought about this again recently after I got back from another conference and realized that the writing world is probably littered with similarly squandered opportunities.

What writer hasn't at least once received an unexpected and generous offer (from a writer, agent, editor, publisher), to look over something at no cost or obligation – a proposal, manuscript pages, idea, query letter, synopsis, contract – or to otherwise provide additional assistance, advice, contact? And how many times have we either let it slip through the cracks of memory or busy-ness, or filed it too deeply in the back of our minds, or figured he/she was just being polite or wouldn't have the time or interest to respond anyway, or would have forgotten they'd even made the offer?

As for me, the next time someone extends me such an offer, I plan to surprise that person and follow up.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: May 13, 2011 Edition

Note: Blogger is having problems. For those who subscribe by email, I have no idea why you got a post delivered today from January, and yesterday's post is now lost in space....yep, it's Friday the 13th all right. Which means it's time to clean the fridge...

For my new readers, hopping over from Catbird Scout, Face Things, Alltop, and Practicing Writing, what I do (most) Fridays is serve up a mix of interesting things I've come across online. It's named after the way I feed my family most Friday nights – cooking (or at least assembling) whatever I find in my fridge. Sometimes the result is a tasty, satisfying meal; other times, well – judge for yourself. Enjoy!

Mediabistro lists five free guides to ebook formatting and style.

► Midge Raymond offers Ten Tips for a Writing Life. I happen to like number 10: "Remind yourself of why you write. Sometimes I get grouchy about not having enough time to write; other times, I’m grouchy because I have to sit down and slog through a beastly first draft. This is when I need to remind myself that I choose to do this, every day."

► Check out the "nearly100 fantastic pieces of journalism" from 2010, according to The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf. A few of my favorites are on the list, including Autism's First Child (John Donvan and Caren Zucker), Letting Go (Atul Gawande), Roger Ebert: The Essential Man (Chris Jones), and The Lost Girls (Mimi Swartz).

► Got a bad case of book deal envy? Horribly jealous of your (better / more frequently) published writer friends? What to do? Get over yourself, according to Dear Sugar at The Rumpus.

► Over at The Renegade Writer, Julie Fast talks about how writers can get work done even when depressed. (I'd say that should come in handy for…oh maybe everyone?)

I hear that my friend Christin Geall made a dynamic presentation at the Creative Nonfiction Collective Conference in Banff, Canada, about "Momoir" -- and the implications of that term and the genre. If you're in the area, you can catch Christin later this month at a nonfiction panel, To Tell The Truth, sponsored by the Malahat Review, at the Greater Vancouver Public Library.

► More friends doing cool things: Christina Baker Kline and Deborah Siegel are partnering to present a day long program in Brooklyn on May 21, for writing mothers who want to restart, kick-start or otherwise light a fire in their writing lives. Can't go? Then at least read Christina's 20 ideas for rejuvenating your writing life, right where you are.

► Finally, what is a Pop-Up Magazine? (Hint: this sounds like the kind of literary event even my husband might like.)

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Memory, nonfiction, and writing about the here and now

I've always been interested in how nonfiction writers work with memories, recreating on the page the events of our past. I even occasionally give presentations to writers groups about it, and also cover the topic in some of my classes. I'm interested in how we can retrieve bits of stubborn memories, how the writing process itself helps loosen additional details, and what we can do to work around, through and sometimes without, the memories we think are necessary to tell a particular story.

I think this intrigues me because a large portion of my creative nonfiction work has pivoted on incidents from at least five years in the past, and some goes back further – 10, 20, even 30 years ago. Although my freelance journalism activities have included a fair share of reporting and opining keyed to current events, for creative nonfiction, it's looking back, often far back, that has always felt more comfortable to me.

Then my father died in 2006, and suddenly I had a compelling need to write about that experience, not so long after it occurred. Slowly, over the four-plus years since, more and more of the present (or more recent past) has crept into my work.

And then last summer, I did what for me, was rather strange: wrote a personal essay about what was happening in my life, right then. I did not fool myself that the piece had the same kind of depth and nuance, the same kind of reflective insight and long-lens perspective I liked to see on the page; but then again, there was a certain energy and tone to it that I liked. Here's how and why it happened.

Last May, I was asked to write twice a month for the Love Mom section at Your Tango. Technically, this made me a (paid) blogger, though my editor and I agreed my pieces wouldn't be casual chronicles, but personal essays. The site typically skews to a younger readership, but I was to represent the slightly older Mom voice, the one with experience, teenage children, and a 22 year marriage.

It was an interesting learning curve, as my (now former) twenty-something editor and I wrestled with getting the tone right, somewhere between here's-what-I-know-for-sure and despite-my-experience-I'm-as-clueless-as-every-other-mother. I experimented with essays that reached back to specific events from when my boys were babies – such as how a miscarriage once affected holiday plans, and my initial reluctance at the prospect of motherhood -- and those noting current struggles, but still reliant on echoes of past experience – such as my annual family-free week, and making peace with being just good enough.

Then last summer, faced with a deadline and operating on scant sleep while across the country at my mother's and on the third week of hospital bedside duty, and missing my family, I decided to let fly with an of-the-moment essay about the mixed emotions stirred by the situation. After getting over the small tremor of fear that my siblings would be upset by the piece, I rather liked the experience. Since then, I've continued to write about what's happening, as it happens, including a follow-up when my mother had another heart attack and I decided not to fly to her side. In one of my favorite pieces, I wrote about anticipating how much I'll miss the family routines we take for granted today, when they are one day gone.

While I don't write or think of these essays in the same manner I do the longer, deeper pieces I continue to work on for other venues, I've grown quite fond of writing them. As I tell my students all the time, shorter is harder, and at less than 800 words, these short pieces are a useful way to practice what I teach.

Going back to the idea of memory, I've also discovered – or rather reconfirmed what I probably already knew – that all memory is tricky, and rich, and so very fallible. Recalling what happened two weeks ago -- and what it means, how I felt, the way others reacted, and who said what -- is as much an act of using one's imagination, as to mine material from decades past.

Turns out, I like getting a story out to readers without even knowing for sure it will all turn out. (Why I should be so surprised, given my initial journalism training?) That part though is a risk for someone like me who is much more comfortable knowing the end of a story before putting a single word on the page. But then again, I need to remind myself that most of the time when I write a very long piece about something which took place 20 years ago, the "end" I eventually write toward is rarely the same conclusion I had originally attached to that story in my memory.

This week over at Love Mom, I wrote about how the preparations for the SAT -- and my son's not-so-subtle stance against my inner-Tiger Mother instincts -- had me re-evaluating the hovering blunders I've made, and how I'm now trying to change that pattern. And who knows, two months from now it may be that I've not really changed at all; that "lesson learned" may have faded to a missed opportunity and I may feel slightly nauseated that I touted what turned out to be an unearned epiphany.

That's the risk I guess of writing in the present. I've avoided it a long time, and so for now at least, I want to see how that particular writing glove fits. Good thing too, since now I'm contributing an essay weekly at Love Mom. I hope you will hop over from time to time to see how it's going, let me know how I'm doing. (All of my pieces at the site are listed here.)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Stuff My Writing Students Say, Part 10: I knew that!

"It's funny. You really didn't tell me anything I didn't already know about the places in the piece that need work. But for some reason, I just kept hoping I could avoid it."

I heard the above quite recently from a student in one of my writing classes, after sending back a piece of creative nonfiction, in which I noted three specific areas I felt needed further work. But I've heard it other times, too. And frankly, I remember thinking this very thing myself years ago when submitting work.

You know the drill, don't you? Oh, this section on page 4 is not really as good as it could be, but it's not really terrible either. Maybe X won't notice.

But X always does notice, right?

Really, how silly are we writers? If we can see what's not working, why would we expect that the perceptive writer, editor, or a writing instructor, who we trust with our work, would fail to notice? (And, if we are paying that person and/or investing our time, why would we want them not to notice?)

I guess it's not that we really believe, deep down, that we are going to get away with anything. The opposite is probably true: I believe most writers want to be called out when their prose isn't top notch. I think this habit -- of pretending we don't see our own writing flaws and hoping someone else doesn't either -- has more to do with not wanting to do battle with those two dreaded R words: Revision and Rewrite.

What we won't do sometimes to avoid that two-headed monster, right? Including turning in prose we know is not as well crafted as we are capable of producing. Including not doing the deep thinking that goes along with rewriting a section which feels too thin. Including hoping another perceptive writer, editor or writing instructor will give us a pass.

I've learned a lot over the years about making peace with revisions and rewriting. In fact, these days, I don't consider myself to be really, truly writing something (as opposed to doing a "brain dump" or playing around on the page) unless I'm in the thick of revisions. Lately, I'm something of a zealot now about how much a writer can grow through the acts of Revising and Rewriting.

Much to the sometime horror of some of my students, I use one of the R words -- Revision -- quite a lot, all the time, in fact. And I also on occasion let go with the other R word – Rewrite – in it most feared form, the one preceded by the C word: Complete. Complete Rewrite, I may suggest (or urge or demand). The kind with a blank sheet/screen. C'mon, it's good for the writing soul, I'll urge.

But it's not always so dire. More often, it's just about paying attention to what we already know needs work, and working on it some more. Revising.

If you think your work needs work, why wait for someone else to notice?

Note: You can read the rest of the Stuff My Writing Students Say series here.