Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Author Interview: Stephanie Vanderslice on her new book, Rethinking Creative Writing: Programs and Practices that Work

I invited Stephanie Vanderslice to either write a guest post, or to allow me to interview her here on the blog about newest book, Rethinking Creative Writing: Programs and Practices that Work. I loved opening my email a few days later, and finding this:

In appreciation for Lisa Romeo’s generous invitation, and after getting acquainted with her incredibly resource-rich blog, Stephanie decided to cut this obviously crazy-busy writer some slack and interview herself.
Stephanie Vanderslice:  So why this book?  Why now?
SV: Rethinking Creative Writing is actually the culmination of about ten years of work examining and writing about creative writing programs in higher education. In 2001 I worked with the author Tracy Chevalier, who was speaking at our university, the University of Central Arkansas and discovered Chevalier, an American, had done her graduate work in writing at the University of East Anglia, the UK equivalent, in stature, to the University of Iowa.
After talking with Chevalier, I became curious about how creative writing was taught in other English-speaking countries.  The web was just emerging at that point and it dovetailed with my interests beautifully. I spent the next five years forging ties with colleagues abroad and learning everything I could about the history of creative writing in the UK, how and why its path had diverged from ours. This culminated in 2006 with a one month study tour in the UK, visiting other flagship programs such as Bath Spa University. Seeing these programs in action made me realize that creative writing programs in the US could learn a great deal from them. 

Stephanie Vanderslice:  So why isn’t this book titled, Why Can’t We Be More Like the British?

SV:  Well, as I started writing it, I realized that the book just sounded like an anglophile (which I am) scolding American programs and, besides being one-dimensional, that wasn’t going to go over too well here in the US.  Also, looking closely at the programs in the UK made me realize that I really needed to get to know the creative writing program landscape in the US better.

I got an MFA in fiction writing from George Mason University in the early nineties and went on to get a Ph.D. in English with a creative dissertation from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. I knew a lot of people from other programs (Iowa, Maryland, Emerson, American University) but I only had their perspective on those programs. So I began to really study creative writing teaching in America as well, via the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference and publications, several books and program histories and of course, what was available online. I was looking for “best practices” at American programs that I could also talk about in my book. And I found them.

Stephanie Vanderslice:  So does creative writing in higher education really need to be rethought? 
SV:  Creative writing in higher education in the US was stagnant for a long time, almost defiantly so. There was this feeling that getting together a few writers and students to form a community,  to lead intense workshops toward a degree—which was how Iowa had started the whole movement—was enough (Mark McGurl writes about this history brilliantly his book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing). 

In the early years, perhaps it was enough. My book argues that it’s not anymore, not with the sea changes in publishing in the last ten years, not with the exponential growth of MFA programs themselves, flooding the market with aspiring writers. Programs need to be more proactive about how they’re teaching students to make lives for themselves as working artists in the twenty-first century.  They need to think about the world they’re graduating their students into and reflect on how to address that reality that in their courses. They need to go beyond the workshop.

I identified many programs in the US and in the UK that are making these changes, such as the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and Bath Spa University. I told their stories in my book in the hopes of inspiring other programs to take a closer look at the writing educations they were providing their own students.

Stephanie Vanderslice:  So who should read this book?

SV:  If you’re thinking about getting an MFA in creative writing, this book can help you think about what to look for in a program, how to ask the right kind of questions in finding a program to suit your individual needs. If you teach creative writing or help to guide one of the hundreds of creative writing programs in the US and abroad, this book will show you a number of innovative programs and practices that will hopefully help you to think more creatively about your own. 

For example,  UNC-Wilmington’s publishing lab is something many programs could aspire to and the program anthologies that creative writing programs in the UK publish and send to agents and editors (often leading to representation) is definitely an idea ripe for replicating in the US.

Stephanie is also the author of Teaching Creative Writing to Undergraduates, with Kelly Ritter and editor of Can It Really Be Taught?: Resisting Lore in Creative Writing Pedagogy, also with Ritter. Her essays on teaching creative writing are published in many journals and anthologies, nationally and internationally in journals such as College English and New Writing: An International Journal of Creative Writing Theory and Practice. Stephanie publishes creative nonfiction and fiction, is finishing a novel, The Lost Son, and is working on a memoir, Malls of America, about growing up along with this American consumer icon in the seventies and eighties.

Notes from Lisa:  If you have a question for Stephanie, leave it in comments, and she will check back here a few times over the next couple of days to answer. We're also giving away one signed copy of Stephanie's book, to a blog reader. To enter, leave a comment by Feb. 28. (Must have a U.S. postal address.)

Friday, February 10, 2012

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, Feb. 10, 2012 Edition

►Fans of Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way -- there's an app for that.

►Over at Fiction Writers Review, challenging advice on fiction writing, yearning, and being fearless, from Robert Olen Butler.

►For those who want to do more magazine writing, check out this excellent instructional post on The Science (Not Art) of the Magazine Pitch, from a Stanford University journalism professor. (via @LaurieAbkemeier)

►In a guest post on Jane Friedman's blog, C.S. Lakin has helpful tips for choosing a freelance editor. Since I do that work myself, I'm in favor of prospective clients putting a lot of thought into the selection process, and agree with her advice for a test-drive: "If you’ve found someone who might be the right editor for you, but you’re still hesitant, hire her to edit a few chapters. See how it goes—not just the editing but the overall communication and support."

►I am occasionally asked to suggest online poetry classes that, like mine for creative nonfiction, last only a few weeks, are affordable, and provide a lot of feedback. A poet friend I trust recommends the offerings at The Rooster Moans Poetry Cooperative.

►Poet and essayist Sheila Squillante, on saying goodbye -- to the just-folded MFA program where she earned a degree and once worked, to a writer friend, and more. 

►Northern New Jersey nonfiction writers might want to check out this ArtsQuest  one-day memoir writing conference in Bethlehem, PA on April 28.

►The ASJA (American Society of Journalists and Authors) is hosting a two-hour seminar on "Writing About Your Mother and/or Father," in Manhattan (also available via live webcast) on March 6.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Getting the Most from Writing Workshops

Over at the Women's Memoir group on LinkedIn yesterday, someone posed a question about the value of writing workshops. There has been much discussion lately among creative writing teachers (and students) about the relative merits of the traditional workshop model in academia, and I certainly agree that the workshop alone shouldn't be the only element of any writer's education - in or out of the academic setting. However, I don't think workshops should be abandoned, either in MFA programs or the wider writing world, and I also believe that more writers have been helped by workshops than not. That is, writers who go into a workshop with a healthy dose of common sense – and some humility.

As a writer-participant, I have had some wonderful experiences and a few not-so-hot ones around the workshop table, and the same goes for when I lead workshops – some situations turn out better than others, depending on a combination of the mix of writers at the table, and the attitudes and expectations everyone brings, including me.

When someone asks me about how to prep for a workshop, I advise (in addition to turning in your very best work!) learning something about the workshop leader, and asking enough questions in advance so that you understand how the workshop will unfold, as there are different models and approaches, and workshop leaders have varying policies.

Know, for example:  Does everyone get to hear feedback from every other writer at the table? Will the writer whose work is being discussed need to remain silent during the discussion? Does the workshop leader also provide in-depth written detailed feedback as well as roundtable discussion? If it's an on-going series, how many times will your work come up for discussion?  Will there be an instructional component as well as peer review?

One thing I think a lot of people fail to realize (including me, at one time) is that a workshop exists not only so that writers can get feedback on work, but also to provide an opportunity for us to improve critical reading skills and practice articulating what it is about a piece of writing that works (and doesn't) -- and why, and to cogently express ideas about revision possibilities.  When we are better able to do this for others, we are better able to see the possibilities -- and holes -- in our own pages.

When I decide to attend a workshop, I make sure my tough writer skin is in place, my mind is in the open position, and that I've brought along my sense of humor. I try not to expect that the workshop will be a life-changing experience (though two workshops come to mind that did positively upend my writing life.) The same holds for when I lead a workshop, though then I tend to soften the tough skin criteria – a bit, but not too much, because I wouldn't be doing anyone any favors if I metaphorically pat heads and avoid the difficult writing issues presented on the pages.

Everyone who has sat around more than one workshop table will eventually understand we all tend to emerge with a grab bag of mixed options for our work -- terrific feedback, insightful suggestions, exciting possibilities, and some pretty awful or unworkable ideas, and occasional harsh opinions.

Post-workshop:  Digest. Hold onto the good ideas, try out the promising suggestions, see what's possible.  File the rest away.  I won't say where.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Guest Blogger Steph Auteri on Building an Author Platform when You Know Nothing About Publicity

While sipping cappuccino at a Rome sidewalk café, my mother and I once bumped into a friend of hers, who lived nearby back home. My mother, relieved she was dressed nicely that day, whispered, "Always remember, it's a small world."  Steph Auteri and I met about three years ago and worked together  -- exclusively online -- when I was a contributing essayist, and she an editor, for YourTango. Then we discovered we lived about 3 miles from one another in northern New Jersey, and even haunted the same café (where no one cares how we dress!). Small world, indeed. Steph is a freelance writer and editor, whose work has appeared in Time Out New York and Inside Jersey. She also works as a career coach to, as she puts it, Word Nerds.

Please welcome Steph Auteri.

Well hello there writer-types on the path to publication. I assume that, much like me, you’ve been workshopping chapter drafts and researching lit agents, drawing up competitive analyses and organizing your annotated Table of Contents, considering your author photo and daydreaming about the book tour you will eventually embark upon. (Because who doesn’t want a book party at their favorite independent bookshop?)

This is all well and good but, in between zeroing in on your target word count and polishing up your book proposal, you may have caught wind of a rumor that the work doesn’t stop when you wrap up your manuscript and land that much-sought-after publishing contract. Authors are ignored, you probably heard. Publicity departments are kaput, you read. Want book sales? The marketing is all on you now.

To an extent, the rumors are true. While there are still publishers doing interesting and innovative things to promote their books (Sourcebooks, for example, once traded book purchases for proposal critiques in an effort to increase sales of Publish This Book), many publicity departments find themselves severely limited by miniscule budgets.

So when a publisher sees proof that an author is self-starting, resourceful, and marketing-savvy — when they see someone with a strong platform, and the knowledge of how best to use it — they’re more likely to take a chance. It means there is a greater probability the publisher will receive a return on their investment.
How can you build your own platform without a lick of publicity experience? Beyond blogs, Facebook pages, and social media, I suggest you focus on your strengths as a writer.

Freelance writers — those who make their money writing articles for glossy magazines, regional newspapers, and other print and online publications — already know this and are masters at platform-building. As their own bosses, they’re not just writers. They’re also business owners, responsible for marketing themselves to new editors/clients on a regular basis. A strong platform helps them bring in more work by spotlighting their experience and expertise. And the more clips they can add to their online portfolio, the stronger their platform.

It’s time you thought like a freelancer and built up your own collection of shorter-form pieces, stories that highlight your abilities as a writer. Luckily, your book project holds a lot of potential when it comes to brainstorming story ideas.

1. Pinpoint a major theme from your book that lends itself to shorter-form articles. This is easy enough when you are writing prescriptive nonfiction, but can be more challenging if you’re writing a novel, memoir, or book of short stories. Still, ask yourself: what is the common thread holding this book together?

2. Generate different types of story ideas. You may think your topic is fairly limited, but there’s a mental exercise I like to employ when I’m feeling stuck for ideas. I take one subject and try to apply it to several common story formats. Those writing prescriptive nonfiction, for example, may find that the subject of their book easily lends itself to service pieces. Those shopping around a full-fledged memoir, meanwhile, may find the personal essay a more natural fit. Some publications prefer listicles (articles comprised mostly of a list – like this one), while others prefer roundups of expert advice. In brainstorming your batch of story ideas, why not hit them all?

3. Do your homework. In the course of generating story ideas, you’ll also have to pinpoint the publications you’d like to target. And there are so many options. Take a field trip to your local bookstore and flip through the newspaper and magazine racks. Consider not only national magazines, but also regional publications, literary magazines, and trade magazines. Back home, check out Mediabistro’s How To Pitch series, or their series on personal essay markets. Or read through the good old Writer’s Market guide. And don’t neglect online publications! Head on over to your favorite web magazines and see who their content partners are. Basically, be open to the variety of possible markets for your work.

4. Query the hell out of a wide range of publications. Once I’ve drawn up a pretty sizable list of story ideas, and have matched them each to a different publication, I get into the querying groove. You can read a more in-depth post on the basics of querying right here

5. Build a super-pretty portfolio. By this point, I’m sure you’ve followed everyone else’s advice and have already built yourself a basic website, or at least a blog. Once the assignments — and then the clips — start rolling in, throw them on up there! It will give you something to direct editors to in the future. And eventually, prospective publishers will eyeball it, too. At that point, they will see that you have established yourself as an expert in your subject area, or have at least built up a pretty sizable following. And they will be impressed.

6. Roll around in money and glory. And by glory, I mean pretty dresses, and perhaps a sexy new pair of boots.  

Of course, if this post leaves you wanting even more information, I’ve got you covered. I’ll be revisiting this post over the next few days and answering any questions you care to ask, in the comments.

You can also snag a free copy of Freelance Awesome: A Starter Kit — an electronic workbook containing spreadsheets for idea generation, query letter development, and more — by signing up for my mailing list right here. Finally, if you feel you could benefit from even more, hands-on help, I’m giving one lucky commenter a free pass at one of my one-on-one coaching packages: One Hour to a Word Nerd Action Plan (you can read more about it here). Just answer this one question in the comment section below no later than midnight on Sunday, Feb. 19.
What topic can I write about that will best help me build my unique author platform?

Friday, February 3, 2012

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, Feb. 3, 2012 Edition

 ►Resource maven Erika Dreifus has done it again – this time, with a valuable post listing and linking to many good venues for submitting flash nonfiction and micro essays.

►And while we're on that subject, here's a terrific interview at the River Teeth blog, with Dinty Moore (editor of Brevity), on writing those short nonfiction pieces.

► What would you have done if you were the editor of the Penn Stater alumni magazine last fall? The UMagazinology blog, which covers the world of university magazines, spoke to editor Tina Hay, about how responding to the most significant crisis in the university's history. It was heartening, in its small way, to read that as Hay planned major, no-holds-barred coverage, "at no time in the process did anyone tell us, ‘Hey, you can’t do this.'"

►The New Jersey chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrations will hold a conference this June in Princeton. You can keep up with a lot of other children's publishing news (inside NJ and beyond) at Kathleen Temean's blog.

►Once a month, NPR is inviting a different poet into the newsroom for a day, to be capped off by an original poem inspired by what is seen, heard, felt. Tracy K. Smith was first up as a newspoet.

►A literary agent's slush-pile intern explains it all.

►The New York Times asks, will Barnes & Noble survive?

►This might seem elementary, but maybe not:  How to analyze a new edition of a "Best of American.." series, to improve your own submissions plans.

►Finally, my fellow list-makers and list-lovers, get thee to Lists of Note.  Most of the lists are not about writing (which makes them even more fun, odd, interesting), though this one, by Henry Miller, is.  (Hat tip: Marion Roach Smith)

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Author Interview: Darlene Craviotto on Memoir, Screenwriting, Michael Jackson, and Agoraphobia

In 1990 Darlene Craviotto was a steadily employed screenwriter, who hid out in her home office, coping with agoraphobia. Then she snagged what seemed the job of a lifetime – adapting Peter Pan as a Disney musical for Steven Spielberg – and had to collaborate, in person, with the intended star: Michael Jackson, then at the apex of his fame. After many months, many pages, and a dozen story meetings with Jackson, "Project M" was abruptly cancelled. No longer severely agoraphobic, Craviotto stashed away the project materials, and moved on. Recently she published a memoir, An Agoraphobic's Guide to Hollywood: How Michael Jackson Got Me Out of the House, which I read one recent rainy Sunday. Darlene agreed to answer my nosy questions.

Please welcome Darlene Craviotto.

Lisa Romeo: Was Jackson's 2009 death the impetus to write this book or had you  considered it before?

Darlene Craviotto: When Michael Jackson died, I thought back to Project M and the work we had done together 20 years before. It wasn’t a time in my life I remembered with fondness. In fact, Project M had made me feel like a failure. As I wrote in the book: “No matter how many script assignments they might send your way, you’re always left with the hurt from the one that never got made.  This time, the hurt was big.”

My way of coping was to put it out of my mind---to bury it away.  And that’s what I had done with the audio cassette tapes I had recorded during story meetings for Project M. I put those cassettes in a Tupperware container, in a duffle bag I kept in the garage; I didn’t want to be reminded.  Then, in 2009, with the news coverage surrounding Michael’s death, I started to think about him -- the Michael I remembered, filled with so much excitement, and such enthusiasm; he had such passion for his work.  I thought of the tapes, and wondered if there was anything in them that might have foreshadowed such a tragic ending to a brilliant talent, and a genuinely compassionate man.  So I dug out those tapes from the garage and started listening to them.

Lisa: Were they as you remembered?

Darlene: It was wonderful to hear Michael’s voice again, excited to be talking about a musical adaptation of Peter Pan.  He was like a little kid, and so was I because I loved Peter Pan as much as he did.  That was the common ground:  we were excited to be working to bring a story to the screen that had meant so much to us as kids. Hearing that excitement in Michael’s voice on the tapes, and that positive memory of him, helped me block out the tragic portrait being played out in the news.  The more I listened, the more I wanted to explore that period of my writing life so I could come to peace with it. And the way I usually come to peace with anything is to write about it.

LISA:  You’re a successful screenwriter.  So why a memoir?

DARLENE:  I never set out to write a memoir. But as I listened to those tapes, I became fascinated by the creative process of collaboration and the building of a story.  How does a story begin?  Where are the roots, and how does it grow, and how does the imagination of the writer use the moments of her own life to create another imaginary life? 

I was fascinated to hear on the tapes how the story of Peter Pan on the page was evolving into the cinematic Peter Pan, filtered through Michael and me. I thought perhaps I might be able to write a two-character play. I started to transcribe the tapes to see how the dialogue would look on paper. I began thinking about Michael’s character---how he evolved from the enthusiastic 32 year old on the cassettes, to the 50 year old who died such a sad and tragic death. 

Michael’s backstory seemed to be something I could write.  The problem for me was the character of the screenwriter.  I knew I wanted the writer to be a woman. I knew I would have to create a backstory for her, and I decided to look at the source---me.  That wasn’t easy; one of the reasons I write is I like hiding behind characters. I may use a character to articulate a personal feeling, thought or idea, but I don't put myself out there for the world to judge.  But in this case, I felt I should examine who I was at the time to see if there was anything there of interest, anything I could use. And when I thought back to that period in my life, I remembered just how agoraphobic I was, and how my life was so tempered and narrowed because of it. 

Lisa: You had been keeping to yourself, staying home a lot then?

Darlene: Yes, I avoided leaving my house and stopped driving completely. As I started to write down ideas for the formation of the story, I remembered back to that first meeting I had with Michael and Steven Speilberg, when I took a cab to Universal Studios. I was desperately nervous about the meeting but equally anxious about having enough money in my purse to pay the cab driver.  So I was feeling very phobic, very agoraphobic, and when we arrived at the studio gate, my name wasn’t on the list of approved people. As I started to write about all this, I thought what a great opening scene it would make in a book.  That’s when I stopped writing and said to myself, “This is a book, not a play!” 

It’s strange but I never realized I was actually writing memoir until the manuscript was completed and I had to consider genre -- and could no longer avoid the fact that I had written a memoir. I think if I had started out to write a memoir I would have been too intimidated. It would have felt too self-indulgent and narcissistic. In fact, I could only write this story envisioning the screenwriter as someone else, as a character in a story. Many nights I would toss and turn, reviewing in my mind the previous day’s writing, filled with self-doubt because it was such a personal story. One of the areas I really had to work on in later drafts was making sure that all the interior motivations, objectives, and feelings of my character were expressed on the page.  This book was such a departure from my comfort zone. 

Lisa:  Did you outline the book first, or otherwise create a plotline or three-act structure as you might for a screen project? 

Darlene:  Because it was a story I had lived I didn’t feel the need to outline, not at first.  I simply started with that opening scene – arriving at Universal for the first big meeting with Steven and Michael; and it was like finding the magic key to unlock a door.  All of these memories started flooding back--and I wrote everything down, as if I were telling the story to a friend over coffee.  That’s how personal I wanted the writing to be.

As I committed more seriously to a book, it scared the hell out of me, and I had to hold onto something tangible to keep focused and on task. I always use index cards on a bulletin board to visualize all of my screenplays. It’s a technique that feels comfortable and familiar so I would sketch out the next few chapters on index cards. But unlike the way I work as a screenwriter, I didn’t want to outline the entire book. I wanted to be surprised---it was like taking a trip and knowing where it would end, but I didn’t want to mark out the entire route on the map.  I wanted to just follow my instincts and let the story lead me.

Lisa: Was anything else different from the way you work when screenwriting?

Darlene: Halfway through the first draft I bought an iPad and started using an application that looks like index cards on a corkboard (INDEX CARD), and the excitement of working with the new technology motivated me and helped me work faster.  Sometimes working in a new and different way makes the writing feel fresher, and more exciting. It kept me off balance and that brought more spontaneity to my writing. Especially since I knew the story so well---after all, it’s a memoir, and I lived it---if I wasn’t careful, I was afraid that there wouldn’t be that tension that’s so vital in the telling of a story. Working with new technology solved that concern for me. I was still using index cards, but in a different way.

Screenwriting involves creating a story, memoir involves telling a story.  As a screenwriter, I create my characters first and they begin to write the story for me---I just run after them with a pad and a pen jotting down everything they’re doing, everything they’re saying.  But in this case, I knew I wanted to use Michael’s actual words---that was important to me---to capture Michael on the page. This wasn’t creating a story so much as shaping it to be interesting to a reader. 

Lisa: Did you learn anything while writing the memoir that you could bring back to the screenwriting process?

Darlene: My strengths as a writer have always been in character development and dialogue.  That’s why I gravitated to writing screenplays. I brought that skill to the book, and I think a reader will find this a fast read because of that craft.  But I’m not used to using a lot of words in screenwriting, instead telling an entire story in 110 to 120 pages.  So I found it odd when I had written 120 pages and the book wasn’t finished yet!  I remember thinking:  I’ll never finish this book---there are too many words required. I was used to being a sprinter and now I was being asked to run the marathon.  It took me two drafts to relax and get into the rhythm of this new race.  Frankly, I still prefer sprinting, but writing this book taught me about marathon running, and how to pace myself and the telling of the story.

 Lisa:  You mentioned that early on one major publisher said the book needed to be more salacious. 

Darlene: I didn’t expect that response because I knew that I hadn’t written a tell-all about Michael Jackson. I wasn’t his sister, or someone who grew up with him, lived with him, represented him, or knew him on an ongoing basis. That wasn’t a story I could tell, or wanted to tell. For nonfiction, unlike with a novel, the book proposal has to sell the book: 8 – 10 pages and some sample chapters. The goal is to get a contract, and then the publisher would have input. But my book was already written: this was the story I wanted to tell and in the way I wanted to tell it.

Suddenly, I felt as though I had wandered back into Hollywood again where essentially you have to write a story the way the producers/studio want it to be written.  If you don’t, you’re fired.  The agent advised, “You don’t have to write anything you don’t want to write.  It’s your book.”  So then I realized I had control over my story and how it would be told.  All I had to say was, “Sorry, but I’m not interested.” 

Lisa:  What was the reaction from the Michael Jackson fan community, if any?

Darlene: When I was working on the book I kept thinking of Michael’s fans.  That’s why I wanted to use his actual words---to give those fans the feeling they were sitting in the room with him, “hearing” him talk about Peter Pan, learning what his creative process was like regarding a film adaptation.  I think in many ways I must be naïve---I never foresaw any problems with anything I was writing about Michael. That was a big mistake. When the book first posted on Amazon, I went on the Michael Jackson chat board and announced that my book had just come out.  The fans there really grilled me about the book, my motivation for writing it; I must have passed the test because a number of them bought and read it. 

After that, however, all hell broke loose. I was not prepared for the vitriol. Many fans were in a rage because I included a scene near the end of the book, when I show up for a story meeting with Michael at10 pm, and he’s sitting on the couch with a young boy, and they're wearing matching fedoras. I didn’t understand why the boy was there for our meeting (so late at night), and frankly, I thought it seemed a little odd. These fans said I had no right to write about that, that I was stirring up trouble, making insinuations. 

I answered these accusations this way: this was told only from my point of view -- an agoraphobic struggling with leaving my house for any meeting, trying not to have a panic attack in front of an important client, and to arrive and see new faces, especially a child, made that meeting particularly stressful. I felt I had an obligation to include this scene because I had been honest throughout the entire book, and to exclude this felt dishonest to me. But some fans raged against me, calling me names, saying hateful things. 

That hurt, and made me reconsider ever reaching out to any of Jackson's fans again.  Within weeks, however, a Jackson fan site posted a positive review, noting a reader could better understand Michael through what he had to say about Peter Pan. And other people have since praised the book, even telling me that Michael’s portrayal humanized him. 

Lisa:  Though built around agoraphobia and Project M, the book is also about a screenwriter navigating Hollywood. Were you concerned about describing interactions -- with Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Disney executives?  

Darlene:  I was never concerned that this book would impact my career. I took early retirement and started collecting my WGA Pension several years ago. (The WGA is one of the few unions in this country that allows an early retirement, and there’s a reason for that:  Once you hit your mid to late 40s it’s more difficult to get hired in Hollywood; ageism exists in the film industry. A group of screenwriters filed an age discrimination suit a couple of years ago and won $70 million.) I had worked steadily for 25 years, and suddenly, my work slowed down completely.  I recognized the problem, and figured why fight it? I decided to stop pursuing screenwriting. 

I probably wouldn’t have been brave enough to write this book a couple of years ago when I was dependent on Hollywood jobs. But now, I can write whatever I want to write.  The funny thing about Hollywood is that the town doesn’t hold many grudges. Art Linson (a well known producer) wrote a book that was a scathing portrait of Hollywood, and it didn’t hurt him at all – in fact, a Robert De Niro film was based on the book (What Just Happened?).  And Ricky Gervais hosted the Golden Globes last year and delivered scorching comments about certain individuals, and who hosted the Golden Globes this year?  Ricky Gervais. That’s because the ratings for the Golden Globes were so good.  The old phrase, “You’ll never work in this town again!” should really be “You’ll never work in this town again unless you can make us a lot of money and then of course we’ll hire you!” If Hollywood thinks it can make money off of you, it doesn’t matter what you’ve said, or written.

Lisa:  Some of those deal-making portions of your book are hilarious, deciphering the subtext and codes -- what was being said, and what was really meant. 

Darlene:  There are other people in Hollywood that could tell you even worse horror stories!

Lisa:  Some people of course will think of the book as another writer jumping on the Jackson post-death publicity train.

Darlene:  I’m happy I wrote this book.  I learned a lot about myself while writing it---and for me, that’s the importance of having written it. Yes, Michael is a major character, but he’s not the entire story.  If I wanted to capitalize on Jackson's death, I could have tried to sell the tapes.  I didn’t.  The best promotion for this book is word of mouth. I hope when people read the book, if they like it, they say to a friend:  “You know, I read this book and it was really entertaining.”

I was thinking the other day that if I had fictionalized this story it might have been easier to promote. I’ve always felt the story would appeal to women, especially those who work and have to juggle a domestic life.  If this had been a novel, it would have been labeled “chick lit” or “women’s fiction” and no one would have said, “Oh, this book is a tell-all about Michael Jackson.”  But because it’s nonfiction there’s a tendency to find one specific slot where it can fit.  “Ah, Michael Jackson’s name is in the title---It must be entirely about Michael Jackson so we’ll put it in biographies.” But I’d rather promote it as an “irreverent, behind-the-scenes look at show business.” In fact, it says that on the back of the book!  That’s what the book is to me, and that’s how I like to market it.

Lisa:   Do you think you would have written about your agoraphobia if your turning point didn't come during the Jackson project? Might you have never dealt with the agoraphobia if that project had not come along?

Darlene:  It would have been easier not to deal with the agoraphobia if that project hadn’t come along.  Michael insisted I meet with him and that meant leaving the house on a regular basis since there was no chance in hell he’d be coming over to my little duplex. With all my previous projects it had been easy to hide out in my house and not take meetings.  My agents used to get so angry at me because studio executives usually wanted lunch meetings and I always said no. My excuse was I was too busy writing a script or developing a story, but the truth was I was stuck in the house, terrified to leave.

Michael (without ever knowing it) forced me to get out of the house---if I had said no to him I would’ve been fired.  So yes, taking Project M made all the difference in the world in setting me on that path to deal with the agoraphobia. I didn’t realize that at the time I was doing Project M, but those months marked the start of me getting better. It took writing this book to really understand that.  Agoraphobia is so complicated that you don’t just “fix” it with one thing---it takes time, and a series of tries and victories to get better and better.

Lisa:  Did you find that recreating dialogue based on memory was easier or harder than creating fictional dialogue? 

Darlene:  I had the tapes from the story meetings, and they served as a springboard, and that's where all the dialogue came from for those scenes between Michael and me. But it took several drafts to be able to craft scenes from that dialogue. I had to understand what the scene was about before I could trim the dialogue and shape the sequence. And there were several meetings we had where the tape recorder wasn’t present; but I must have thought that someday I'd write about the experience because I also always wrote down what we had talked about in a journal. Later on, that journal was invaluable in the writing of this book. I’d refer to it over and over again to remember how I felt at the time, and to read what we had talked about at a specific meeting. 

My favorite scene is the first time I met with Michael at his Los Angeles condo, and it was just the two of us.  That scene is all based on meticulous notes I took when I returned home.  It was at that first encounter that Michael had suggested we tape future meetings, so there wasn’t a tape of that initial encounter. When I wrote that scene in the first draft of the book, I never had to touch it again. I love that scene so much; it was very freeing creatively to close my eyes and to remember that first meeting.  Hearing the tapes helped me begin writing the story, but, for me, fictional dialogue is so much easier to write. 

Lisa:  When the book begins, you were writing alone in a sparsely furnished office, isolated because of agoraphobia, while on the page, you were conjuring adventurous characters, fearlessly traveling to new worlds. Did you have an appreciation of that irony? 

Darlene:  I never saw the irony in that until you just pointed it out!  It’s interesting because when I first started working in Hollywood I was writing personal, intimate dramas.  When I branched out of television films into feature films I started writing more adventure screenplays.  And I remember how much I enjoyed that because I was incapable of traveling, or doing anything adventurous.  So I guess in many ways I was living vicariously through my writing.  I’m not sure it helped me become more daring, but it certainly was fun.  Isolation feeds my imagination---I’m not the kind of writer who can work in Starbucks.  I need to be alone to see the images and hear the dialogue.

Lisa:  Underneath the main story is another about perseverance, flexibility and the long-haul attitude any writer needs.

Darlene:  I was one of the lucky ones:  I worked non-stop as a screenwriter for over 20 years.  That’s not so easy to do anymore. Now, script assignments are rare; project development has declined over the years.  I read in an issue of the WGA magazine that anyone going into screenwriting now has to be prepared to make money doing something else.  Hollywood is going through the same transformation as publishing. Content is available outside the traditional system and the rules of the game are changing. Anyone can make a movie now and put it up on the internet.  We’re not dependent exclusively on Hollywood to give us movies. In a way, that’s good, and in a way, that’s bad.  It means less jobs in Hollywood, and more competition.

When I was working, a producer would call my agent and ask if I was interested in a certain project. If I said yes, the agent set up a meeting, and I told the producer my ideas.  I would never start writing until the deal was in place. Nowadays, screenwriters are asked to come back with ideas, scenes, characters, and dialogue on paper. You're expected to write, and turn in a fully developed story for FREE. This might take weeks--weeks when you're not getting a paycheck. And there's not even a guarantee that the producer will even hire you for the job. Worse, the producer or studio isn’t doing this to one screenwriter, but maybe to two or three, or five others, so essentially screenwriters are being asked to work for free before they are even hired. Sometimes the project goes away and no one is hired.  How can a screenwriter pay the rent and feed kids that way? So what the union says now is be prepared to make your money doing something else while you pursue your screenwriting career. 

It’s a brutal business--especially for the scribe. Screenwriters are on the bottom of the food chain.  You have to understand that to negotiate your way through the business.  Yes, you do have to persevere, be flexible, and be in for the long haul. But you also have to accept that there is a hierarchy and understand where you fit in -- at the start of your career, the middle, and at the end.   Know your place, and be willing to play the game. And keep your honesty and passion for the page.  Finally, there’s a saying around Hollywood: “Never forget what they’ve done to you, but never let them know that you know.”  Unless you take early retirement, and then you can write a book about it!  (she said with a smile on her lips and a twinkle in her eye…)

Lisa:  What's next for you?  Will you write a screenplay from this book?

Darlene:  A documentary I wrote and directed (“No Girls Allowed”), about the last all-male public high school to go coed in 1983, will have screenings in March and April, before we do a final post production polish and put it out on DVD.  (Our first screening will be for the Orange County NOW chapter, March 24 at Cal State Fullerton, and I’ll be speaking at that event.)

I don’t have any plans at the moment to adapt my memoir into a screenplay. I’m just concentrating on the marketing efforts right now. We’ll see where the book leads.

Notes:  We will give away a signed copy of Darlene's book to one blog reader. To enter, leave a comment here on this post by Feb. 18.  (Winner must have a U.S. postal address.)  Darlene will appear tonight (Feb. 2) at The Book Den in Santa Barbara. You can also follow Darlene on Twitter.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Why Saying Yes When I Want to Say No is Sometimes Good.

I recently got a good lesson in walking the talk.

As a huge advocate of stepping outside of one's comfort zone, I encourage other writers to try it – write in a new genre, do something that's a little scary (Read at an open mic? Apply for a grant? Attend a conference?). In addition, I urge writers – and everyone really who is interested in developing their craft and/or career– to say YES. Yes to new and perhaps offbeat opportunities and invitations that come one's way. Not yes to everything, of course, but to those things that may help us stretch, enhance our skills, widen our connections – and who knows, maybe have some fun.

Because I dish out this kind of advice, I try to model it; in fact, it was because I adopted this mindset during my MFA program, that I advocate it at all. Back then, I said yes to a lot of things I might have otherwise dismissed as too time-consuming, too difficult, too outside my comfort zone.  I'm not always successful, but when I get a chance, I try to practice what I preach – and do it like I mean it.  

Early in January, an editor I know asked me to write a short chapter about working with a ghostwriter, for a book she was compiling, in which some 70 professionals would be giving tips and advice to business owners. This was something I felt comfortable doing, and because I want to grow the ghostwriting end of my business, I said yes, that I would be happy to do it.  A few weeks later, she invited me to appear in a video featuring several of the chapter writers, each speaking for 90 seconds about their topic. Whoa. So. Not. Happy. I said no way, thanks anyway, but no.

She asked me not to say no quite so quickly, to think about it.  

The timing coincided with Boot Camp where the focus those two weeks – in materials which I of course had written – was on encouraging the 14 writers in the class to get out of their comfort zones, to say YES.  


So I spent some time, during a longish car drive, trying to figure out why I was so automatically opposed to the video invitation. It didn't take long:  I hate having my picture taken (and a recent spate of video chats only reconfirmed my fear of video). It would take place on a Saturday that was already crammed with other work and family obligations. The only photo of myself that I like is the one here on the blog, taken during a shoot for an Oprah magazine essay, when professional make-up and hair experts were on hand. And, I am profoundly uncomfortable writing for video, especially with a strict 90 second limit.

I had to get tough with myself and ignore the weekend timing; I could work it out, after all. But the rest still stopped me, especially the scriptwriting part. Then I remembered something I tell my kids to ask themselves when they are stumped:  Is there anyone I know well who can help me?

There was. I asked my 17-year-son, who is a host and sports  analyst for his high school radio station, and who has taken a summer sports broadcasting program for four years, to help write the script.  I gave him my chapter to read, and he banged out a good rough draft in five minutes; we edited together, and then he helped me rehearse, and get the timing right.

Finally, I came up with a way to deal with the camera issue, and called the editor to see if she and the videographer would be willing to shoot me in deep shadow, since after all I would be talking about ghostwriters (sample line: "If I do my job right, you won't be able to see me on the page either.") They agreed.

Perhaps these were not the very best creative solutions, and yes, I know the witness-protection angle may be a little bit corny. I may get hives when I see myself in the final video. But I was pleased that I had been able to work around my discomfort and to say YES.  I had a little fun, too. That's allowed, right?