Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Of Writing Advice, One-Liners, and an A Game.

Once I met with a writer who had asked me to evaluate her memoir-in-progress. It was time to return her pages and my report, and over coffee, maybe pass on some tips for moving on. I wanted to convey both encouragement and a realistic idea of the amount and type of work still ahead for her.   

It was mid-morning, and possibly because I had been awake until 2:00 a.m. watching old episodes of Downton Abbey working on another project, I worried that I wasn't saying anything particularly hlepful. But then she told me that something I had mentioned weeks before, just one sentence which I barely remember saying, had already been a big help as she worked on additional material; roughly this: "Your experience itself is not so unique, so just tell the story you can tell." Or something like that. I don't think it's especially brilliant, but I was pleased to have been of help.

This reminded me that so much of the useful, memorable writing advice I've gotten over the years, has come in the form of a one-liner. I can recall one writer I admire telling me, "Nice writing, but what is this really about?" Good advice, coming after several drafts in which I was spending a lot of time trying to write elegant prose, while avoiding writing about anything. 

Another mentor in a workshop once asked me to explain, out loud, something I had made overly obscure and complex on the page, and after I did, she simply said, "Okay. Now write exactly that." One author's offhand remark, tossed out during a panel at a writer's conference on creating the *I* narrator in memoir, has also stayed with me: "Get over yourself; you're not that interesting." Or something like that.

One more I remember was an MFA faculty member who had read a lot of my work, and reacted to a new, lackluster piece I'd written with, "If you settle for your B game, you may not get the A game back." Ouch.  But, she had gotten through, and to this day, I swing for an A game every time. I sometimes strike out, but that's okay; and if I knew more about baseball, I'd find a clever way of saying it's not the home runs that count, but a decent batting average. Or something like that.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, Jan. 20, 2012 Edition

I've been crazy busy (thank the freelance gods), so even the link list is short this week. But I am cooking up several author interviews and guest posts for the next month or so, including one with the inimitable Bill Roorbach. So stay tuned. Meanwhile...

►Some good tips from Robert Lee Brewer about experimenting as a writer, and getting out of that comfort zone.

► I try to keep tabs on the precious few book manuscript contests for creative nonfiction, and found this one, from Zone 3 press, with a May 1 deadline. 

► Robert Vivian has some thoughts on the meditative essay.

►If you are considering adding a new poetry book to your collection, NPR previews a dozen good ones set for 2012 release.

►As a teenager, I wanted to be a sports columnist for the New York Times; and still love to read their sports pages. Yesterday, Jere Longman's column hit several of my buttons -- Royal gossip, an equestrian athlete, jocks behaving badly (in this case rugby players), and anything British. But mostly I loved it because of Longman's excellent craft and hilarious style.

►Finally, wouldn't be cool if a U.S. department store held literary events, housed a reading space, and if a fast food chain on this side of the pond were to give away, oh 9 million books? 

Note: Registration is now open for The Submissions Project - an online class to help you get active in the area of moving your work out into the world. Begins Feb 27.

Have a great weekend!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, Jan. 13, 2012 Edition

►Copyblogger recently listed Ten Terrific Creative Writing Blogs.

►On the Los Angeles Times' Jacket Copy blog, 25 authors note New Year's resolutions, some funny, some quite serious, many about finding more time to write and to read.

►Three new blogs I recently discovered that you might like:  Three Guys One Book, The Memoir Project (Marion Roach Smith) and Literary Writers Network.

► Every independent bookstore needs to take this message to its "shoppers" (notice I didn't write "customers". 

►And while on that subject, though I couldn't find a video of a performance, some equally good lyrics, to the John McCutcheon song, Closing the Bookstore Down.

Duotrope, a highly usefil site that lists literary journals and offers multiple excellent submission stats, tools and tracking systems, is planning to branch out into nonfiction.

►Creative writing teachers (and students too) what do you think?  Is the idea of teaching one writing skill at a time at odds with the workshop approach and does it matter?

►At Terrible Minds, Charles Wendig wrote my favorite kind of writing advice post: the no B.S., no spin, not nicey-nice kind:  25 Things Writers Should Stop Doing. Head over, and brace yourself.

►Finally, I'll be sending out daily Writing Prompts again beginning Friday, January 20, for six weeks. 

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Book Lists, of All Kinds.

The Book List.  Do you have one?  I have several. One is a list of the books I own and have (somewhere) in the house. This comes in especially handy when one of my kids needs a required book for school, not to mention when I nearly buy a third copy of a book I'm sure I want to read someday. Another is a list of books I want to buy or borrow from the library or trade for. A third is the list of books being published soon by writer friends and acquaintances, so that (hopefully) I'll remember to lend some support. Still another is a list of the books I need (and usually want) to read to prepare for an upcoming class or assignment.

Then there is the list I want to add – the List of Books I've Read This Year. Except for during my MFA program, this list has been missing from my life for decades. Growing up, I conscientiously kept a list of the books I read every year. I know many of my writing friends still do keep such a list and I don't know why I fell out of the habit, probably coinciding with completing college some ahem-something years ago.

As a reading obsessed child and teenager – way before blogging -- adding a book to the list was a source of pride and more; it was a way to document for myself that maybe all that reading was adding up to something, that I hadn't merely just been (as my mother often snarled) sitting on my butt. How I would love to be able to look back at those lists today!

As an adult who now interacts with words and writing every day, wanting to once again have a Books I've Read list may represent something else; I am not sure exactly what yet. However, I do know I want to read more (but doesn't everyone, except maybe my husband?). I mean a lot more, and list lover that I am, maybe a list of what I actually accomplished will be a motivator to keep up the reading pace.

Another reason I'm reviving the Books I've Read list is I enjoy adding to a list almost as much as I like crossing things off a to-do list. I like to watch a list grow when it means maybe I've grown a little too (isn't that what reading is really all about anyway?)

Finally, I think having a list will motivate me not to let too much time go by between finishing one book and starting another. Sure, there's that delicious time period when I close the back cover of one book and don't want to move on to another just yet; I want to remain in the world that author created for just a bit longer.

Problem is, if I linger too long, I get upset with myself for not starting that next book. So along with my new list is this new idea – I'm not to put a book on the just-read list until I've selected the next book to read and placed it, physically, in my path, for the following morning, say. This is easier said than done because there are so very many books piled on my To Be Read shelf and because often I need to gauge what kind of mood I'm in at the end of one book before choosing the next.

I don't plan to post the list here (who needs that?), but on more frequent occasions than in the past I'm probably going to mention what book just made it on to the list. 

(Note to those who receive posts via email:  No, I don't have a balky space bar on my computer. Blogger and Feedburner are having a problem with the spacing between words. I'm trying out a few suggested fixes, but my powers are limited, so I'm hoping the tech folks get this sorted out soon. Thanks to those who sent emails to alert me.)

Friday, January 6, 2012

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, January 6, 2012 Edition

On Fridays I post links I like. It's called Friday Fridge Clean-Out because on many Fridays, I concoct a dinner plan for my family by pulling out everything that's been accumulating in my refrigerator that week, choosing the freshest looking stuff, tossing it together, and hope everyone at the table will find something they like. Here, the "fridge" contents come from my Google reader, email inbox, Facebook and Twitter feeds, favorite news and writing sites, blogs I follow, etc.  Enjoy!

►Ever get the feeling, as you're contemplating ideas for personal essays, that you just don't have enough turmoil in your life to compete? Then this hilarious McSweeney's personal essay by a personal essay is for you. (via @ChristinGeall)

►A first time novelist wonders about boundaries, subliminal influences, and creating characters, in connection to her profession as psychotherapist and living a visible life in a small community.

►As a writer, are you easy to contact? Do you understand the link between opportunities and being easy to find, especially online? Chuck Sambuchino – and 100-plus commenters – share some terrific tips.

►Over at her Dollars and Deadlines blog, Kelly James-Enger rounds up eight useful posts from 2011. Some of the posts are round-ups too, so there's plenty to explore on a number of useful topics.

►Ever wonder what your shower curtain has to say?  Apparently Dave Eggers has, and the resulting monologue is printed on -- wait for it -- a shower curtain.

►To mark the one-year anniversary of the publication of her excellent short story collection, Quiet Americans, Erika Dreifus is giving away three copies (print or electronic).

►British novelist Harry Bingham runs a helpful blog for the Writers Workshop in the UK. I liked this guest post he featured about finding mentors, especially this line: "A willingness to listen and learn is just as attractive to a potential mentor as a high level of native talent, perhaps even more so."

►You have until Jan. 13 to enter Gotham Writers' Workshops huge giveaway of more than 63 items – writing books and other products, e-readers and tablets, subscriptions and class tuition.

► Finally, for the writer who has everything, a doll of your favorite author?  (via Diane Lockward's poetry newsletter)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Lies Writers Tell Themselves

I am not a morning person. I loathe getting up early, as in before 10 a.m. For a few years, when my husband and sons went camping for a week each summer, I'd work from noon to four, have lunch/dinner, relax, do chores and errands, see a friend, then work and read again from 10 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., turn in around 3:00 and awaken, refreshed, around 11.

Sadly, this is no way to conduct a responsible adult life when I’m not alone. Instead, I get up every weekday by 6:45. I eat breakfast with my younger child and deliver him to school before 8:00. Then I often go to a breakfast meeting I've willingly scheduled, I sit at my desk and open my computer. I work, I write, I edit, I talk to students or clients.

I pass for normal every morning and function mostly, I'm convinced, because of the lie I tell myself when the alarm first rings, which is this:  I'll just get my son to school, and then I'll come straight home and go right back to sleep. I tell myself this lie nearly every morning. Except for a morning or two each winter when the annual major cold arrives, the lie doesn't become the truth. I know this – that I am not going to come back home and go back to bed – but I persist in telling this to my semi-conscious self in order to make myself get up.

This came up the other day in a conversation with a writer who told me that if it weren't for the lies she told herself on a daily basis, she'd never have gotten her memoir completed (now signed by a small literary press; translation: it will be published though little money will likely ensue). Some of her sillier daily lies went something like this: The house will clean itself. My kids will fondly remember this time as the wonderful year they got to watch endless TV, eat peanut butter sandwiches for dinner, and their silly mother forgot to make them practice piano.

Her more serious daily lie goes like this:  Just go ahead and write whatever you want because no one is ever going to read it anyway.  She tells herself this lie, despite two traditionally published novels, dozens of essays, and a poetry chapbook.  The lie is necessary, she says, because it allows her to be daring on the page and to block out thoughts of what comes after the final draft – agent review, finding a publisher, critics, readers, marketing. Yes, she admits that it's a lie, that deep down, she's fairly confident what she writes will make its way to readers, but if she thought about her words existing anywhere out in the world while she's still at work on early drafts, she'd panic and possibly stop writing.

Driving home from our (yes morning!) coffee chat, I wondered if there were any lies I tell myself while I am writing. One that bounces around my brain when I'm in the first draft of a personal essay is: I'll never be able to finish this in a way that satisfies me. I believe I persist in this particular lie so that I won't skip over the necessary mental (and often emotional) steps involved in writing the all-important middle of the story. Even if I already have a great ending in mind, I am still convinced I'll never get there, and that's a good thing. It means I won't just skate over the middle, never going deep enough.  If I never really believe the end is in sight, I'll spend more time getting that middle right.

Another lie I tell myself is: I have no business writing this; I don't have the skills or experience to tackle it. Why this lie? Because if I feel too confident, if I don't have a simmering case of being a bit of a fraud, then I tend to write too quickly, with less care, and less respect for the particular piece. So I tell myself, You can't write that, and in some counterintuitive way, this keeps me going. Maybe I want to prove myself wrong. Or perhaps a part of me recognizes that one always has to write that very first….book review, scholarly article, prose poem, short story, lyrical essay, something… and so the fear is necessary. Then, while I am scolding myself that I shouldn't be writing the thing I'm currently writing, I can remind myself that in the past I've written many things I had no experience with the first time around either.

I suppose there are other lies I tell myself too, but I can't think of them now. It's 8:15 a.m. and I'm thinking of going back to bed.