Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top 20 Posts from 2013: Guest Bloggers, Authors, Readers, and Writing Friends Rock!

As 2014 approaches, I want to thank all of my 2013 blog visitors—loyal readers who stop by frequently as well as occasional drop-ins. It means a lot to think that any of the 78 posts that appeared here this year have contributed to your writing life!

A check of the blog's stats reveals the top posts of 2013 and guess what? Many of them aren't even completely "mine," and I don’t care! Some are the work of my lovely guest bloggers, others are author interviews; writer friends I admire, and who have generously shared their time, advice, insights, frustrations, tips, craft, and journey with others on the writing path.

If you missed a few, here are the 20 most read posts of the year (exclusive of the Friday Fridge Clean-Outs, which often score high, sometimes for an obvious reason, sometimes for no reason I can determine):

Writers: A Year-End Call for *I Did It* Lists. Join me?

Guest Blogger Patricia Berry on Finding the Essay at AWP

Guest Blogger Christi Craig on a Writing Retreat, Place, Atmosphere, and a Nod from the Universe

Thanks, Gratitude, and Other Stuff Related to Writing, Thanksgiving, and Holidays

Guest Blogger Lesley Green Leben on Anticipation, Inspiration, Hard Work and Taking Risks at the Southampton Arts Writers Conference

Author Interview: Kate Hopper on Writing, Craft, Motherhood, and Her Memoir, Ready For Air

Guest Blogger Drew Myron with Ten Tips to Giving a Good Reading

Guest Blogger Karen Pullen on Writers Police Academy. Or, Wake Up and Smell the C4

Guest Blogger Shaun Hunter On Going Public With Her Memoir Manuscript

Old Habits, New Habits, Weight Loss and Writing

The Personal Essay and Me: The sudden path from zero to urgent

When "So what?" is a perfectly good response.

Guest Blogger Tom Mallouk, on Writing Poetry (or anything) and the Joy (!) of the Workshop

Guest Blogger Ryder S. Ziebarth on Her First AWP Conference

Guest Blogger Ruth Foley on: Poem Series That Take You Hostage, and Three Possible Escape Routes

Editor Q & A: Suzannah Windsor, of Compose, on Starting the Journal, Submissions, and Full Plates

The Good, the Bad, the Uncomfortable: The MFA, Five Years Later

Every Writer Can Get Something Out of NaNo -- Whether Signed Up or Not

Looking Inside: Creative Nonfiction in the Fall Issue of Compose

Guest Blogger John Merson on Writing Memoir About War and its Personal Aftermath

All good wishes for the New Year!  In 2014, I'll try my best to bring you more and even better posts!

Friday, December 27, 2013

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, December 27, 2013 Edition

> Can you handle "brutal criticism" of your work? The University of Southern New Hampshire's MFA blog offers advice

> Does anyone else sometimes resort to a physical cut-and-paste when dealing with an unruly revision? I do.

> Over the years, I've learned a lot from Wendy Burt-Thomas via her blog Ask Wendy the Query Queen. She's decided to discontinue the blog, but you can still mine it for plenty of tips and advice. Thanks, Wendy!

> Writing exercises and daily tasks for writing new/short plays, over at Grub Street Daily.

> Submissions fees: yea or nay? Interesting discussion going on over at Erika Dreifus's blog.

> Casinos know how to attract crowds. Hosting signings and meet-and-greets with popular mainstream authors is working for at least one gaming venue. (via Beyond The Margins)

> Finally, some holiday editing humor. (My husband's 98-year-old aunt recited the entire Twas the Night Before Christmas the other day at dinner, and I doubt she would have appreciated this!)  Plus, puns for English nerds.

Have a great weekend! 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Situation, the Spouse, and the Story

Yesterday, among other Christmas gifts, I gave my husband the same small item he has received from me 28 times before. The story why, which includes candy, dashed teenage dreams, manipulative gift-giving, marriage, tradition, and enduring love, made it into a seasonal essay this year.  

Often, nonfiction writers discuss handling the intricacies of writing about loved ones. To let them read drafts or not? Make editing suggestions? Vote with a red pen? Do they get to veto certain subjects? Does it depend on the intended publication/readership? Use real names or made-up ones? 

As my children became teenagers, my own *rules* changed, and now I check in with them before I write about them, while I am writing about them, and before I publish anything about them. They get to read, react, refuse. (Selfish reasons, really; I still want them to talk to me.)

I have a different arrangement with my husband, who only chimes in before publication if I'm unsure of a piece of our shared history, or if I want to know what he really thought about something. This is partly because as an essayist, I want to stay inside my own head when writing, hear my own voice most clearly. But I also suspect it has to do with him being an infrequent reader, one who can appreciate a finished piece of prose, but finds drafts and revisions tedious. (Perhaps he also sees a different bargain: I write what I want, he watches as much football as humanly possible.) Which means he generally doesn't read anything until it's published and others are reading it too. 

I do hold my breath a little, hoping he'll like what I've written (which usually happens with the short personal essays in mainstream media) or at least understand why I've written it and what it means to me (more often a concern with my longer essays that appear in literary journals). Either way, it doesn't alter our system the next time around--I write, publish, then he reads--which often strikes other writers as both freeing and slightly dangerous. It works for us.

Frank did not read "The Gift I Keep on Giving" until it appeared on Christmas Eve. I was able to quickly exhale. 

Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons-Dan Taylor

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Wordless Wednesday: Holiday Edition

Okay, okay, they ARE words. But good ones, I think. And what I wish for all my readers!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Writers: A Year-End Call for *I Did It* Lists. Join me?

Three years ago, I first shared with blog readers an end-of-year list-making activity I'd grown to cherish. Not making a typical New Year's resolution list, aka the list of things I should do and maybe will do for about a week and then quit doing.

No, my year-ending ritual is to make an *I Did It List*.  

A mini brag book, so to speak. Each December since, I've talked about how it has become important to me to spend some time at the end of the year noticing, recognizing, and recording what I accomplished in the year that's ending.

I am a writer who--like many of you--routinely deals with rejection from editors, setbacks, uncooperative drafts, lost opportunities, time constraints, deadlines, idea droughts, revision hell, and other unfriendly aspects of the writing life. One December, after I'd had a particularly awful week, I needed some perspective. Surely I had done something right that year I could be happy about?

It would be a short list, I was sure. I was wrong. I had actually done a lot. 

I don't mean only the "big stuff" (like getting published someplace nice or winning a contest or landing a new gig), but also many less obvious, less shiny, but significant ways I'd grown as a writer and further developed my writing life. 

I noticed that some interesting items were things that had whizzed by without initial notice, or whose contribution to my writing life grew more valuable only as time passed, or activities which had seemed like busy work or frustrating tedium, but upon inspection made a big impact.

I invited others to do the same. Since then, many writers have taken up the *I Did It List* challenge.

I would like to encourage everyone to join me again this year, and make your own *I Did It List* for your life as a writer. 

What did you get done? What new thing did you try? Did you intentionally move ahead or move sideways, or back to a better place? What did you learn? What did you do differently? 

Did you make X more submissions than you did the year before?  Did you make one submission, finally conquering your fear of hitting send?  Did you start something? Finish something? Work hard on the middle of something? Take a class? Read more? Find a writing friend? Go to a conference? Write regularly? Learn to blog? Ask for help?  Help another writer?

How long should your list be? As long as you keep thinking of things that mattered, that you set out to do and did, things that you are proud of, pleased about, jazzed by. As long as it needs to be to include even stuff you didn't mean to do but now that you think about it, you did and you're glad you did.  Or as short as it takes you to nod, smile to yourself, and realize that--despite any internal default I-should-do-more setting--you did a lot this year.

List it, and be proud.

Then what?

Nothing, really. I make my list, read it a few times, then put it away until I am having a particularly awful day in the new year; then I take it out and skim it. Oh yes, I'll think, that's right, I actually do accomplish a lot each year, despite awful days, awful weeks.

I like to imagine we can all keep our lists to ourselves, mostly because I don't want to encourage folks to create *I Did It Lists* to outshine other writers' lists, or read like one of those overblown exaggerating holiday letters we all hate to get (and rarely believe).

So while I'm suggesting the list is a personal activity, I'm also thinking that the experience of making the list is something useful to talk about publicly. Write a blog post, Facebook update, a tweet, Tumblr or newsletter note about what making an *I Did It List* did for you. 

What, if anything, did it tell you about the one wild and precious writing life you already have?

However, while my personal take is that my list is for me, yours is for you, I'm aware that spreading this idea via a blog post that I'll be sharing around the web, and expecting others to keep lists private may seem a little strange. And, I'll concede that it is possible to gain (and impart) something meaningful out of sharing such a list

But let's at least also take public the collective experience of many writers compiling *I Did It List*. Think of the positive rippling effect we can create by reviewing our year and writing down the highlights, the shared power of naming what we really and truly did; instead of listing what we should/could/ maybe will do, or the soul-crushing empty exercise of shaming ourselves for what we did not do.

Mind you, I have nothing against also making a list of things you want to do in the coming year to make your writing life better. But first, consider how good your writing life already is, and what you did to make it that way. Join me, and who knows, perhaps like other writers did last year, your list will not be only about the writing life, but about life.

Find some time in the crazy final two weeks of the year. Create your *I Did It List* and ask other writers to make their own. Concentrate on what you did, not on what's to come or what's come undone.

Please share this post, and let me know if you have started or completed your own *I Did It List.* 

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons/Daehyun Park

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Monday, December 16, 2013

What Kind of Essay? The answer is in...the essay.

If you've been a regular here, you may know that I'm putting the final touches on a manuscript--a memoir about the relationship that developed between me and my father (just before, but mostly) after, his death, told in linked essays. 

Some are more narrative than others, some more lyrical. One is long and segmented; a few are short forms. How and why each essay takes the shape and form it does relies on so many factors, and frankly often the *answer* doesn't reveal itself until far along in the revision process.

The rest of the time, I'm typically just following some instinct that's difficult to explain. The material knows, often, what it wants to be. The story knows how it wants to be told. Lately, I trust that if I listen carefully enough and resist the urge to be right about an initial impulse, I can hear when subsequent drafts are telling me something different.

An excerpted essay from the manuscript, with the title of "Eyes, Hands, Hotel, Hospital," is included in the December issue of an online journal with its own distinctly intriguing name, Halfway Down the Stairs.

If I had listened to my initial idea of how this particular piece of the story--my final visits to my father's hospital room--should exist on the page, it might have been three separate things: a light piece about my father, afflicted with Alzheimer's, thinking the hotel was a hospital; a long (and likely maudlin and unruly) prose poem about how his eyes unnerved me; and an essay about how comforted and upset I was by the look and feel of his hands even as everything else about his body was deteriorating. 

But early pages can be squirrelly, and after a dozen or so combined drafts, I put each one away for a while. 

At some point, I realized that it was all connected to those final days, everything running together, a collage of eyes and hands, memories of all the fine hotels we'd stayed at during my childhood, and finally, the reality of the hospital. It wasn't three pieces, it was one -- and a rather straight-ahead narrative essay at that

Which is not to say it might not have worked the other way, ten other ways. But this way felt right.

Here is part of middle of the essay, a section where I write of my father's confusion about where he was.
In the hospital, I asked my father if he wanted me to rub on some hand cream. He shrugged, but I did it anyway. I thought, What the heck, it will kill some time. After, he began what had, at least while I'd been here, become his daily litany of why he must be allowed to leave this place:
They can't keep me here against my will.
I know the law.
If I want to leave, I can you know.
Get them to call me a taxi.
Where's my suitcase? I want to go.
Get your mother; she'll know what to do. (This one I could not help laughing at out loud. My father always did everything related to travel, finances, and dealing with management or authorities; and he always reminded everyone that he alone was qualified to do so.)
Take me home.
I want to go home.
Why can't I go home? (This one I had trouble answering, even glibly, because I wanted to know the same thing. Why couldn't my mother allow him to come home—to his 5,000 square foot house, the one with extra bedrooms and spare bathrooms and wide doorways, the one built with polyester money—instead of making nursing home arrangements?)
Where is my ticket, my passport, the concierge?
When is that damned bellboy coming back?
They make me wait, for what?
I hope you will hop over to Halfway Down the Stairs (where there is a lot of engaging work), and read "Eyes, Hands, Hotel, Hospital."

Friday, December 13, 2013

Friday Fridge Clean-out: Links for Writers - December 13, 2013 Edition

> Deflated by workshop feedback? Diana Munoz Stewart at The Write Catch has some excellent thoughts on what to do with all that comes your way across the workshop table, in "Why So Many Good Writers Can't Write".

> Good post by Bryan Cohen over at Memoir Writer's Journey, on "Using Sense Memory to Remember Story Details."

> Your book has won an award. Now what?  At Build Book Buzz, Sandra Beckwith has 12 good ideas on spreading the news.

> Cool slide show -- 50 narrative devices for nonfiction story tellers, over at Inside the Story.

> If you tweet to attract readers, build your platform, or expand your writing-related business, you might need these "50 Ways to Get Out of Your Twitter Rut."

> Like to make a donation that goes directly to helping kids and teens read good books? I favor the Books section at Donors Choose, where teachers post requests and you pick the classroom and project you want to help. Make a pledge, then get updates, and a note (and sometimes a photo) from the teacher when the project is fully funded, and books have been purchased and are in kids' hands.

> Interesting, detailed report on "The Ghostwriting Business" over at Priceonomics.

> Continuing with my new practice of pointing my readers to other blogs that post interesting links lists, be sure to check out Erika Dreifus's Friday Finds for Writers.

> Finally, two fun things... First, over at Rattle, Francesca Bell's hilarious poem that expresses what every writer who has ever received a rejection (hey, that's every writer, right?), might like to say in return.  And, "The Top Ten Reasons Not to Write", over at Brenda Moguez's Passionate Pursuits. Numbers 10, 5, and 1 said it all for me!

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Wordless Wednesday for Writers: Let it Snow

Yesterday morning. Perfect writing weather.
Can you use the photo as a prompt?

Click over to Allyson Latta's blog for a short list of other writers who post a Wordless Wednesday photo prompt. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Stuff My Writing Students Say, Part 16

"You're kind of cranky. But in a good way."

Last night, the final night of an 11-week memoir and personal essay class, a writer who attended each session (despite complicating situations in her life), said this to me by way of explaining why she'd always turned up. "It's partly because you're a bit of a grouch, in a good/funny way," she said, and she wanted to see what I might grumble about each week. She assured me my crankiness was limited to instances of lazy writing, sloppy editing, and last minute, half-hearted revising, and that otherwise I'm a nice person.

Okay, I'll take that.

Which gave me a chance to reiterate what I say on the first day of every class or workshop, but students tend to forget: I'm not the sort to spend our scarce few hours together telling you how wonderful your precious prose is, how talented and gifted you are, that your every word sparkles. I don't tell writers, or frankly, expect writers to believe, that I love everything about their work, that they are going to get published somewhere wonderful and quite soon, that an essay or chapter is nearly perfect as first submitted.

I don't laud praise all over a manuscript, and then slip in a few small quiet words about something that you may, perhaps, possibly might consider changing just a bit, because, at least in my opinion, and I may be wrong, it could use, you know, just a bit of tweaking.

I developed this philosophy from having been on the other side of the table for years, sitting across from all kinds of writing teachers, workshop leaders, and editors. Long ago I concluded that if I wanted to grow as a writer, praise is lovely but not entirely helpful. And, it's not what I'm paying for, what I'm there for.

If I'm in the student/client chair, I'll take cranky and tough--which I'm fairly sure is mostly another way of saying demanding--over sweet and nice. Mind you, cranky/tough/demanding has to come along with: helpful, resourceful, encouraging. So I may be cranky but I try hard to be all those things, too.

Cranky/tough/demanding works if backed up by precise feedback, and focused, specific editing suggestions; with questions that help/force a writer to re-think, re-imagine, re-see (revise!) their work. So I work hard to do a lot of that.

Cranky/tough/demanding, when coupled with genuine interest in seeing the student writer challenge him/herself, also requires a willingness--in order to push that writer's craft toward growth--to sometimes not be liked. (Kind of sounds like parenting teenagers, huh?)

I'm occasionally, no maybe frequently, not liked by some folks in the early stages of working together. Most of the time, they like me again later on. But not always. That's okay.

My students and clients can think I'm grouchy or a bit of a crank, or tough or demanding, and I don't mind. As long as they also think I'm helping their writing develop, go new places, leap forward.

Growth, development, leaps forward usually aren't the result of patting anyone on the head and telling them how wonderful their work already is. Let's face it, you can get that from Mom, your best friend, your sweetheart.

The teachers, mentors, workshop leaders, and editors I had who were tough, who seriously challenged me, who were daring and smart enough to draw a line through a paragraph of mine and write in the margin "Who cares? Rewrite," are the ones who propelled me to work harder, to revise, rewrite, shred, and start again-- and to raise my own standards. The ones who were sweet and soft left me feeling good for a few hours -- and then very soon after, I felt cheated, out of money and time.

Anyway, I'm not always cranky. Sometimes I do tell students how much I admire their writing, but this typically occurs when writers have gotten through three or six or 16 drafts, and by then are beginning to be a little tougher, a little more demanding too, of their own work. 

When I can see how hard a writer has worked to make each word sparkle, each page shine – and that they've moved on in their writing development, I've been known to say, "This is GOOD."

I could say "great" I suppose. But let's not get carried away.

Read the other 15 installments of  Stuff My Writing Students Say.

Image:  Flickr via Creative Commons / mootown

Friday, December 6, 2013

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers - December 6, 2013 Edition

> It's nomination season for the Pushcart Prizes, Best American Series, and other literary awards. Henry Tonn, who has an essay on the Pushcart nomination list this year, talks "Literary Prizes and the Selection Processes" on his blog, Reading, Writing, and Rejection Slips. I was simultaneously reassured and dismayed by part of the backstory: "This is very nice, and I am happy to be selected, but it behooves me to point out that this particular memoir-essay had previously been rejected by no fewer than 82 publishers. I know, I know, I keep railing on about rejection slips, but the irony here is too much."

> If freelancing is part of your writing life, check in with Yael Grauer, on 20 things she learned (the hard way) in her first four years.

> On the Missouri Review blog, managing editor Michael Nye, speaking as a writer, offers a different take on getting published in "The False Promise of Acceptance and Publication."

> At Utne Reader, William Bradley discusses "Resources for Finding Great Essays," helpful for those who teach, study, read, write and love the essay form.  (hat tip Kate Hopper).

> I've been trying to include here other writers who do Friday link round ups, and am happy this week to point you over to Delia Lloyd's Friday Pix. Delia's an American journalist living in London, and her selections are always interesting, often funny, and never dull.

> Are you making a book trailer on your own? One author offers 20 things she did before, during, and after creating hers.

> Lots of literary journals claim to publish "both new and emerging writers." Writer/blogger Michael Alexander Chaney offers a look at a few major journals that seem to deliver.

> Finally, here's what happened when 425+ British writers of note signed a protest letter to The Times of London over its apparent devaluing of children's literature: The Times ignored the letter. But Nicola Morgan, who has a prominent writing blog, did not.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Writer Seeking Silence and Quiet. Or, I'll Make My Own.

Shhh. That's better.

Silence. Quiet. 

I love both.

Sometimes I am in control. On a solo car trip, when I'm not in the mood for music or NPR, or a book on CD, I like only the sound of the wheels on pavement, a rhythmic backdrop. In my home office, on a day when everyone else is elsewhere, I like quiet, punctuated only by the sounds of the house settling, the wind whispering by, an occasional car, the newspaper landing on the porch steps, the hum of the refrigerator.

My mother played the radio all day while she performed her household chores. I like to cook and do laundry and straighten up (mind you I didn't say "clean"), in a soft relative quietude.

Sometimes when I'm not in control, the universe is kind to me and the aural and visual "noise" is dialed back to a slightly less bothersome level than usual (I consider flashing television screens and blinking, beeping phones very noisy). When the televisions I encounter in public are muted; when cell phones and tablets and laptops can't find a signal so that texts and emails stop dinging and website loading is a fantasy, I'm typically pleased.

I love creating my own sense of (relative) quiet--maybe what I mean is psychic quiet?--by staying still in a noisy environment.  I love keeping my own silence when there's noise.

When there's sound all around (even happy sounds at an enjoyable gathering), I tend to lean back from it. At a wedding (or barbecue, pool party, holiday fest) when music is playing and people are talking, I'm quietly watching it all from my seat (to be clear, I'm not feeling left out, bored, or otherwise unhappy at these times; I simply like the view).

I'm not a shy person and I like to talk. I enjoy music and the sounds of others having a good time is wonderful. But take all, or any of it away, and I'm happy.

Perhaps I'm strange. Or is it because I am a writer? And I'm "writing" in my head much of the time? I think so, but of course many people who don't write also treasure quiet, for all kinds of reasons.

For me, quiet opens a pathway to writing, or at least to hearing the early scratchings of writing in my brain. I like what happens in my head when there's quiet outside my head, or when I create a cone of quiet around myself.

I crave the quiet. I seek it out, so those scratchings can come out to play.

Whether I record those scratchings (on little notebooks I have stashed everywhere at home and carry along when I'm out), or I simply attend to the words, thoughts, phrases, ideas, and observations swirling around, that I know are the kindling for future writing, is not really what matters.

Quiet is often negatively associated with feeling lonely, or the idea of being a loner. But both, in my mind, in relation to the quiet that comes along with those states, are not negative at all; especially if you think (as I do) of feeling "lonely" as simply the state of being alone, and the idea of being a "loner" as feeling settled and not upset by having only one's own company. In those contexts then, I want to be  a little lonely, and I'm not put out by being labeled a loner.

Last year, in a post at Catching Days, Dan Chaon says, "The real secret to a writer’s day is how much time you’re willing to be alone, how much you like being lonely, how much you crave it."

He also talks of his preference for staying awake far into the night. I do that too. Because I'm alone then, in control of the quiet. My writing keeps my company.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Wordless Wednesday

Wordless Wednesday is part of a Blog Hop. To see more, there's a list at Cathy Chester's blog (for the most part, they are not writing blogs, but you will see some interesting, lovely, odd, fun, and sometimes stunning images. I can think of many worse ways for a writer to spend a few minutes wandering around the web instead of, you know--writing.)

Monday, December 2, 2013

About Writers and Help and Back-Scratching

Another writer helped me with something this morning, which reminded me that a couple of months ago, I offered to do something for a fellow writer (friend of a Facebook friend). It was something she was finding complicated, confusing, and time-consuming to do herself, but would have taken me very little in the way of time or resources. I offered because I remember being in her exact situation once.

I never heard back from this writer, and then we ran into one another (in person). I asked if she'd gotten that task done and she sheepishly said no. When I asked why she hadn't followed up with my offer, she said, "I figured you were only being polite."

I'm not that polite. I am not polite to the point that I will offer my time, resources, mental energy unless I mean it. 

But I know what she means. We sometimes assume that other writers who offer to help us are too busy, or were not really sincere (and maybe even count on us not following up), or only offered because they felt cornered or owed a mutual friend a favor. I once thought this too, and while it may be so sometimes, mostly I discovered I was wrong.

I've discovered that most writers (maybe most people, for that matter), no matter how busy, will only promise away time, resources, and/or energy when they mean it. Most of the time, offers of help are extended because that writer wants to help.

The other thing I've learned is that people in general are looking for ways to make a contribution to others' well-being, to do something nice, something another will value. 

Not to get too touchy-feely about it, but when we accept an offer of help, we are actually also helping -- giving someone an opportunity to give, to offer a hand up. When we let people help us, we build stronger, more reciprocal relationships, and acknowledge everyone's need for occasional assistance, reinforcing our humanity all around. 

Maybe especially among writers, whose budgets are usually very tight, the desire to help in ways that don't cost money exerts a strong pull. Every time a natural disaster occurs, I see, usually within two days or so, an auction site go up, hosted by writers, filled with offers from other writers to perform a service (editing, consultation, manuscript evaluation, etc.), in return for a donation to disaster relief. 

Even when the need is small though, in my experience, writers come through for other writers. It's one way we build a writing community.

Need help? Ask. Received an offer of help? Take it. Then, when it's your turn and you want to help? Offer.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers - November 29, 2013 Edition

> A terrific find, at Rebecca Skloot's website -- detailed, concise, and extremely practical and honest advice for those who want to build book reviewing into their writing life.

> At Bark, a discussion about being a writer, being an editor, day jobs and whether balance is possible or even desirable. 

> Pulitzer winner, novelist Paul Harding, has five great tips for fiction writers (and like most thoughtful writing advice, I think it applies across all genres), over at Publishers Weekly. I especially like # 6, and also this tip: "Don’t write your books for people who won’t like them. Give yourself wholly to the kind of book you want to write and don’t try to please readers who like something different."  Do read them all.

> For her site Handful of Stones, Satya Robyn is looking for short writing she calls "small stones". You'll understand when you read some of the examples and guidelines.

> Women on Writing has an interview with Linda Joy Meyers, Kate Farell, and Amber Lea Starfire about their experience creating the anthology The Times They Were A-Changing: Women Remember the 60s & 70s, (plus a give-away).

> If you don't already use Duotrope for researching journals, planning, and tracking your submissions, you might want to sign up today, when they're offering a free month with a one-year subscription.

> If Christi Craig's recent guest post here about her time at the Salt Cay Writers Retreat whetted your appetite for tropical writing forays, here's another post at Allyson Latta's blog from a writer who attended her Spice Isle Writing and Yoga Retreat on Grenada.

> Romance writers who are interested in typical advances and royalty rates paid by 30 traditional publishers will want to study this list compiled by Brenda Hiatt.

> If you're interested in my *I Should Be Writing!* Boot Camp in January 2014, you can save $30 by registering on Black Friday, Small Business Saturday (or Sunday!), or Cyber Monday.

> A few cool and low-cost gift ideas for the writers on your list; be sure to check out The Writers Circle's Story Magic Creativity Decks (cool, off-kilter, wildly imaginative prompts), for the young (or young at heart) writers in your world

> You have until midnight on Saturday, Nov. 30 to leave a comment on the interview with Kate Hopper for a chance to win her lovely memoir Ready for Air.

> I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving day yesterday. Here's a short essay over at Baristanet, about adjusting to my husband's holiday traditions, so different from the ones I grew up learning to love. 

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanks, Gratitude, and Other Stuff Related to Writing, Thanksgiving, and Holidays

Before we all slide into a post-meal coma, I would like to extend a warm and heartfelt Thank You to all who have been part of my writing life in 2013...editors, students, clients, readers, publishers, journal staffers, colleagues, critique partners, mentors, program directors, other coaches, and bloggers. And of course you, my fabulous blog readers, for visiting, reading, commenting, emailing, linking, liking, subscribing, recommending, and sharing!  Oh, and my family too (who don't complain when I write about them!).

I hope your Thanksgiving is filled with goodness.

Here are a few previous posts from this blog, on the intersection of writing, gratitude, Thanksgiving, and holidays. Have a wonderful day!

+ When others offer to help, do you let them? Let them. You'll be the one saying Thanks, but the person who does you a favor also gets to feel good, and will likely be grateful to have made a contribution to someone else's goals, dreams, project, hopes.

+  A full house, a table load of relatives and friends? An especially fertile time to capture kindling for personal essays or memoir. While your observation antennae are primed, find a way to take notes.

+ If you write seasonal essays, think about investing some time now on rough drafts that you can stash, then revise, in time for submission next year

+ Take a minute now and make plans to do something soon that another writer will appreciate. A little bit of your time, energy, social media savvy, bookstore dollars, and network rustling helps support the authors you know.

+ And don't forget to express thanks to those who makes your writing life continue to go round!

This post is shared at the SMART Living 365 Gratitude Blog Hop, where you'll find links to more gratitude-related posts (not necessarily all about writing). 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Guest Blogger Christi Craig on a Writing Retreat, Place, Atmosphere, and a Nod from the Universe

I was linking to posts at writer Christi Craig's blog for a while before we officially connected, in several different ways over the last few years. Now, we're staff colleagues for the literary journal, Compose, where Christi is an editorial assistant (and I'm nonfiction editor).  When I heard that Christi was jetting off to a writing retreat/workshop on a sunny island last month, I was happy for her – and, you know, jealous!  From the first pictures she posted on Facebook of her adventure, I knew I wanted her to write about the experience here. Christi lives and writes in Wisconsin, where she works by day as a sign language interpreter. She has stories and essays forthcoming in Hippocampus and Deep South.

Please welcome Christi Craig

Long ago over coffee with a writing friend, I uttered a half-spoken prayer that all I needed was a week away from work and life’s day-to-day to focus solely on my novel.

I had no idea those words would carry me from Wisconsin to the Bahamas.

I rarely travel such a distance from home. My discretionary income is slotted mainly for blueberry muffins and coffee. I do not have vacation time at work. Then last August, my friend and author, Rebecca Rasmussen, suggested I apply to attend the Salt Cay Writers Retreat. I thought, Ha, funny!  Rebecca was serious, though. She knew I was working hard on a novel, she’d read my writing, and she thought this would be a great opportunity for me to work on my manuscript under the guidance of amazing professionals. At the same time, I learned of a private funding source for which I might qualify that would substantially lessen the financial blow.

I considered the location and how I didn’t have a passport, hadn’t traveled internationally since I was a teenager—and never alone. I studied the dates, which fell in the middle of my fall semester at work when no one dares to breathe a word of time off. I perused the list of faculty: Best-selling authors Jacquelyn Mitchard and Robert Goolrick, agents from Folio Literary Management, Executive Editor Chuck Adams from Algonquin Books. Amy Einhorn!

I thought of my husband, who would have to take on my responsibilities at home along with his own for a solid week.

Crazy, I said.

Then I remembered that conversation over coffee and my mantra for the year: Fearless Writing, which meant doing things that move my writing career forward, even when those things seem impossible or frightening.  

I filled out the application to Salt Cay and attached my writing sample; I applied for  funding. I took a deep breath and hit send. I thought at best someone might read my work and think it decent enough to file away for another year. I mentioned the retreat to my office mate at work in a “This will never happen,” kind of way.

Less than a week later—on my birthday—I learned two things: I was admitted to Salt Cay.  And, I'd gotten the funding.  The bulk of the retreat would be paid for. Now, all I had to do was get there.

What happened next still amazes me, down to the last tiny detail: my boss at work made negotiating time off easy; my husband didn’t balk at the expenses we would have to cover, nor a week of handling work and life with kids solo. I found my misplaced birth certificate needed for the passport, and paid for the passport fees at the post office with the last check in my book. Everything happened quickly, easily, and, when I held my passport in my hands, I understood how writing is about taking risks.  About having faith.

Two months later, I stepped out of the airport in Nassau and into the tropical sunshine, where a tall, official looking Bahamian man smiled and said, “This way, Beautiful.”

Those words—This way. Beautiful.—struck me with the same intensity as the sun and warmed my back, urging me forward.

When I climbed into the cab, I left the loose seatbelt hanging and the window open and settled in—to the winding roads and the roundabouts; the palm trees and warm breeze; the blue waters of the harbor and white sands of the beach.

I hadn’t participated in a writing conference before, but I’d read about them. I knew enough to worry how a fledgling writer like myself might fit in with the high caliber faculty and authors at Salt Cay. But the hosts from BACKSPACE, Karen Dionne and Chris Graham, designed a retreat where the typical dynamics of a conference fell to the wayside. We were not compressed in small conference rooms, nor herded in lines for one-on-one meetings; and I shared only a handful of my business cards. Networking was a big part of the retreat, yes, but it evolved in a less-structured way.

Most of the retreat events took place in an open shelter with a backdrop of palms and clear skies and ocean waters. There’s a shift in the way people relate when you’re all wearing flip-flops and swimsuits and beach hats, and the effects on me in Salt Cay were ease in conversation, plenty of laughter, and more time spent focused on the work instead of obsessing about my credentials.  

 I took notes in pictures and in pencil on everything: the wayward crab that clicked across the tile of the shelter in a zig-zag pattern, because he resembled me that first day, navigating the unfamiliar and the exciting; the dolphins, because they seemed so carefree and kept giving me the eye and hinted of a message I’d heard before, Relax. Take it easy. Do not struggle.

I soaked up discussions from panels and workshops. When Robert Goolrick spoke on opening pages, I wrote his words in caps: More important than clever plotting, confidence in your writing brings authenticity to your voice. Confidence and authenticity were two qualities sometimes missing in my manuscript.

On Dialogue and Sentence Structure, Michelle Brower, an agent from Folio, stressed that a good sentence—especially a good first sentence—has story written inside of it, where the who, the what, and the mood of the book are layered within a handful of words. Later, I met with Michelle for my one-on-one, and she showed me in my work where I do that well and where I could do it more. Michelle illustrated a quality of agents I hadn’t recognized before, that they know story as much as they know publishing, and they work hard to ensure an author’s manuscript reads at its best.

In daily break-out sessions, I sat with five other writers at a picnic table with Chuck Adams, who pointed out areas authors tend to ignore in first drafts and revisions, like character development. For my manuscript in particular, I’d neglected to make the antagonist relatable, and, as Chuck said, even a menacing character needs a redeemable quality. He was right, of course. 

During structured writing time, I put lessons into action, working on a character interview that probed background more than physical description, a natural course of inquiry with surprising insights that only come from loose structure and trust in the process.

By the end of the week, I did not go home with twenty more pages of my manuscript. But I left with a better understanding of the craft, with more direction, and with appreciation for the time spent with professionals I might not ordinarily meet, at least not at this stage in my career. I left with sand in my shoes and hope in my story.

I could blather on. Really.

My week at Salt Cay was a gift, an experience that would be difficult to replicate. In fact, I wouldn’t even try. Because, when it comes to personal success at a writing retreat/conference, place is as important as faculty; atmosphere as critical as the number of workshops. The notebook I carried all week has become a Bible of sorts, its pages full of revelations and action steps and even a few new characters. 

One half-spoken prayer, one nod from the Universe, a new perspective.

Note from Lisa:  You can connect with Christi on Facebook and be sure to follow her on Twitter. You won't be sorry!

All photos by Christi.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- November 22, 2013 Edition

A smaller list than usual, downsized for pre-Thanksgiving time-challenged writers out there (and over here). Enjoy!

> Love annual book lists? How about a list of book lists? Check out LargeHearted Boy's mega-post (warning: major rabbit hole!).

> Have you seen Modern Loss? An interesting new site for essay and memoir about the many contemporary ways of dealing with grief.

> Bestselling many-times-traditionally-published novelist Allison Winn Scotch's post about her decision to self-publish offers views on pragmatism, risk-taking, control, leaps of faith, hard-won experience, and (between the lines), the costs of going indie without sacrificing any of the power of the traditional marketing machine.

> Two angles on decoding rejection notes from literary journals, and what to do about it. Plus, news to me, and oh so interesting: a wiki listing hundreds of journals; when you click on one, up pops examples of their standard and personal rejections. Not sure whether each is up-to-date or accurate, but fascinating.

> I like discovering other writing blogs that also offer links on Friday, like this one, by a fellow NJ writer.

> Finally, for your entertainment pleasure, a "grumpy literary agent" offers SlushPile Hell. Can't believe people really write this stuff in their cover letters. Can't believe I spent an hour reading every single (very short) post going back two years. (Okay, I was stuck in a waiting room, but still.)  Very funny.

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Author Interview: Kate Hopper on Writing, Craft, Motherhood, and Her Memoir, Ready For Air

(Update: giveaway extended to 11/30)

I usually remember how I first came into contact with a writer, but there are online writing friends who seem to have always been there. Was it Facebook? Mutual blog appreciation? Writing friends in common?  Were we fellow contributors to an anthology? In the case of Kate Hopper, all of the above – maybe more. No matter, I'm simply grateful our paths criss-cross, and like so many who value her writing, I made my way quickly, and with much admiration, through Kate's memoir Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood. Kate is also the author of Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, and she holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota. Her writing has appeared in BrevityPoets & Writersthe New York Times online, and Literary Mama, where she is an editor. Kate teaches online and at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. 

After a busy month of blog tour, events, and appearances to mark her memoir's debut, she agreed to answer my many questions.

Please welcome Kate Hopper.

Q:  How did the book begin? Did you know from the start it would be a book, or did that creep up on you as you accumulated material?

A.  In the early weeks/months of writing, I was just vomiting out images and memories and impressions to get them down on paper, which felt urgent to me and really helped me process our experience with prematurity and Stella’s hospitalization. But I knew I would be returning to graduate school the following fall to finish my MFA, and I knew I’d have to write a thesis, so I really began to think of it as a book pretty early on.

Q.  The book is in the present tense, almost exclusively except for flashbacks. Was that a careful decision in terms of craft, or did that just feel organically right for you, for this material?

A. Both actually. It felt organically right, but I was also really determined to keep it in present tense for the narrative urgency that present provides. But present tense can be tricky to maintain over the course of a book.  There is no “now” narrator looking back and making sense of what happened; there is no other voice, as Sue William Silverman writes in her essay “Innocence and Experience: Voice in Creative Nonfiction,” that is “reflecting back on the story and guiding the reader through the maze of the experience.” There is only the “you” experiencing it in the moment.

So early on in the writing of the book, I worried that the narrative would become episodic, that it would be plot and nothing more, that the book would exist only in the situation, on the “this happened and then this happened” level.

So as I was working on the book (which was over a number of years—I started writing it ten years ago) I had to make sure that I fleshed out my character, the “me” on the page, as a thinking, reflective person. So the reflection enters the narrative not as my now, writing self thinking back on the events, but instead as an in-the-moment version of myself who is reflecting and trying to make sense out of things as they are happening in the narrative.

Q.  In the book you write that you were almost wholly unable to take notes at the time, which was unusual for you. What, if any, written documentation helped with the writing – hospital charts, emails, calendar entries, etc?

A. I didn’t take notes while Stella was in the hospital, except for recording a few details (weight change, major changes in her status, etc.) on a baby calendar I’d been given before she was born. Everything was very fresh in my mind when I began writing a few months later, but as I got deeper into the writing process, I ordered all of our medical records and printed out the emails I’d sent and received during that time. I also did a ton of research to verify medical facts and better understand prematurity and the major risks that preemies face. And articles I read later about PTSD in preemie parents also made their way into the narrative.

Q. How much of an effect did your being a creative nonfiction student in an MFA program have on your ability to mine the experience as it unfolded?  Did you find yourself "essaying" events as they happened, even just in your own head, sort of storing it away for future? 

A. During those early days in the NICU, I wasn’t consciously storing away the experience—I was simply too overwhelmed. But as Stella stabilized and we settled into a routine, I definitely remember writing the events in my head. And I experienced many of those “remember this” moments. So I’m sure that being immersed in the writing life prior to Stella’s birth had an impact on how I was experiencing those events.

Q. Continuing on that idea, was your sense of observing life influenced by so much memoir and personal narratives in your reading and teaching?  Perhaps a feeling of "I may write about this one day, so I'd better pay attention"?

A. Absolutely. I think it’s difficult not to do that as a writer—we’re always on the lookout for material. One of my favorite things about being a writer is the way it makes me pay attention and slow down. I remember one day early in my writing days when I was devouring a bowl of strawberries and I thought, hey, slow down. How would I describe the taste and texture of these strawberries if I had to write them? Whenever I find myself rushing through life, I remind myself of that moment. Stop, look around, describe.

Q.  Can you talk about the way you used details and objects, such as the Pee Jug, the rice sock, and the foaming antibacterial (among others), to evoke and heighten the narrator's experience?

A.  I always tell my students to focus on concrete details as they’re crafting their scenes, so during the writing of Ready for Air I often heard my teacher self asking my writer self if I’d done the same. I know that some of my readers will be intimately familiar with the NICU, but most of them won’t be, so it was really important for me to focus in on those details in order to put readers in my shoes. In the rewriting and revision process I tried to push that even further and ask how certain objects and details might work on a metaphorical level.

Q.  It seemed the lack of much backstory in the early pages helps amp up the immediacy and sense of urgency for the reader from the start. How much thought and/or revision was involved in crafting that in-the-middle-of-things opening?

A.  Lots of thought! That was actually always where the book began for me, but I played with starting in different places, and none of those alternate openings worked for me—I always came back to that doctor’s appointment in which I learned I might be developing preeclampsia. Those early chapters are partly about loss of innocence and adjusting expectations (and also about denial). But I also want readers to get to know Donny and me before Stella is born, so there is quite a bit of writing about our relationship and how we work together as a couple.

In a later draft, I did cut back on back-story (condensing what had been chapters 4 and 5 into two paragraphs). My inclination is to include too much back-story, so I try to always go back to the question What is this book really about? If the back-story I’ve included doesn’t serve the book’s purpose, I cut or seriously condensed it.

Q.  When in an MFA program, I wrote a research thesis on how women memoir writers navigate representing their spouses on the page. I'm curious about how much you included your husband Donny in that process. Did he read early drafts?  Was there an agreement about how much he'd feel comfortable with you revealing about your marital relationship? Any other ground rules, practices, etc.?

A. He didn’t read early drafts. In those, I was still trying to get us both down on the page honestly and in a way that felt three dimensional, so it didn’t make sense to have him weigh in at that point. My husband’s a private person, but he’s also very willing to let me write about our lives. He read later versions and he knew that if anything made him uncomfortable, we could talk about it. He’s my biggest supporter, so I wouldn’t put stuff out there if he wasn’t okay with it. And he had veto power over anything I wrote about his family. Interestingly, he only suggested one small change in the whole book. We had remembered a detail differently, and changing it didn’t alter the emotional reality of the scene for me, so I changed it. It was the least I could do.

Q. I was curious to learn that "ready for air" refers to when a preemie is ready to breathe normal room air on his/her own.  I also noticed many references throughout the book about breathing, air, feeling short of breath (physically and metaphorically), and claustrophobia.  

A. For me, “ready for air” is both about a preemie’s lungs and about me feeling stifled and overwhelmed in my role as an isolated new mother. The title was pulled from the line in the book that referenced Stella’s lungs, but I really wanted it to reverberate through the whole narrative on a metaphorical level.

Q.  I read your book during a week when I was teaching a memoir class in which a few students were struggling with too many secondary characters in their stories, and I noticed your book's author's note includes, "…I occasionally omitted a person from a scene as long as that omission did not compromise the veracity or substance of the story." This crystallizes a powerful but hard to learn aspect of memoir craft – knowing what to leave out and why. Did you realize instinctively that you'd have to make these omission decisions, or did they reveal themselves to you in the writing and/or revision process?

A. They revealed themselves to me in the writing and revision processes. Sometimes I realized that introducing a new and sometimes periphery character in a scene would just bog it down. Those were the cases in which I just left that person out, as long is it didn’t compromise the emotional truth of the scene. It’s so tricky to learn that, and for me I had to be in the thick of writing before it made sense.

Q. Near the end of the book, you explain how, during your child's first year or so, you began to build a writing routine into your new life as a mother, which, premature birth aside, is one of the most challenging times for a woman to continue writing. If I'm remembering right, you began with one morning a week, then built up to four mornings a week, cobbling together relatives pitching in, paid childcare help, and daycare. Since you've also teach classes and have written a book about writing through motherhood, can you talk about this a bit?

A. It’s challenging to balance writing and motherhood. It’s even more difficult if on top of being a mother you have to pay bills and juggle paying work with creative work (which is usually unpaid, at least at first). My students are always struggling to find a balance that works. I always ask them to think about what’s realistic in terms of a writing schedule. (Don’t say you’re going to write three days a week if that’s not feasible.) I make them write down their schedule, and then I stress that writing needs to be a priority if they really want to write. It doesn’t need to be #1 on the list, of course—that’s unlikely—but at least it needs to be on the list.

I can’t imagine motherhood without writing or writing without motherhood. Before Stella was born, I actually didn’t write very much. Clearly I wrote enough to get into an MFA program, and I did my assignments, but I also spent a great deal of time procrastinating, waiting for inspiration and generally wasting time.

But motherhood—and the need I felt to reflect on the larger issues that came up in my life as a result of me becoming a mother (isolation, marriage, writing itself)—made me into the writer I am today. And now, if I have two hours, I write for two hours. I no longer have time to wait for the muse to shine her light on me (and she’s incredibly unreliable anyway).

Flexibility is also important, though. Over the last couple of years (when I was working full time in addition to teaching and leading retreats, etc.), I wrote very little. And I just had to be okay with that. I knew I’d get back to a schedule in which writing would be possible, and I finally have.

Notes from Lisa:  Kate would love to answer your questions! Leave them here in comments, and she'll stop by a few times over the next couple of days to answer.  Kate will also give away a signed copy of Ready for Air to one commenter, chosen at random (whether you ask a question or not). Leave your comment before midnight on Monday, November 25 Sunday, November 30 to enter (must have a U.S. postal address).  To follow Kate's blog, go here.