Thursday, March 28, 2013

Guest Blogger Patricia Berry on Finding the Essay at AWP

Patricia Berry, like dozens of literary folk, lives in nearby Montclair, New Jersey. Pat and I were once members of a small writing group for a while, nudging each other on, hatching plans, and laughing around one another's dining room tables. She is an essayist whose work has appeared in several anthologies, including Unbuttoned (Harvard Common Press) and Over the Hill and Between the Sheets (Springboard). Pat is also a creative writing coach who teaches in the Columbia University Summer High School Program; blogs occasionally about books, films and the writing life; and contributes to The Days of Yore, a blog featuring interviews with writers and other artists. She has an MFA in creative writing (nonfiction) from Columbia’s School of the Arts.  
Please welcome Patricia Berry.

Like recent guest blogger Ryder Ziebarth, I attended my very first Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference earlier this month in Boston. And like Ryder, I discovered AWP is a heady event—and one designed for sprinters. Since I have not jogged in years, I narrowed my fact-and-inspiration finding to those writing questions that have been nagging me. I circled and starred my way through the program guide, identifying plenty of panels with potential for answers. In the end, only once did I need to dash along the spacious corridors of Hynes Convention Center in search of my next hit of literary intelligence.

Where my work is concerned, there are lately two issues. One is, How do I pitch the project I’ve been laboring over for going on three years? Is it an essay collection or a memoir? I know what I think it is and what I want it to be (essays), and I know what several agents have told me it must be (memoir). Until I’m somebody, the argument goes, that is, an author with so much name recognition that a publisher could actually sell an essay collection with my name on it, I’m stuck with the M word. Not that there’s anything wrong with publishing a memoir. I just don’t think that what I read on my pages adds up to one long and connected personal story. Or should. It turned out AWP had a panel of established writers with whom I could commiserate: The Godzilla of Nonfiction: Has Memoir Swallowed the Essay?

I’ve read Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum regularly since her first book, My Misspent Youth, a collection of individual essays on life as a young professional, was published in 2001. During the Godzilla panel, Daum implied that by publishing essays right out of the gate, she’d snuck in under the wire; the trend toward longer linear narratives had not quite taken hold. She wasn’t so lucky with her most recent book, LifeWould Be Perfect If I Lived in That House (2010). What she wrote as a collection of personal essays around her preoccupation with real estate became memoir when she was informed it would not sell otherwise. Daum applied what she calls “gratuitous connective tissue” to the pieces, ending the book and the property search, a little-too-tidily for her taste, with a wedding. The book, she told us, suffered as a result.

Panelist Emily Fox Gordon’s Book of Days: PersonalEssays (2010) is her fourth book, which I guess makes her somebody. Gordon paid her dues: under pressure from editors, she converted two earlier collections into memoirs. At AWP, Gordon gave a worth-the-price-of-admission tutorial that riffed on the essay as confidence, not confession. The writer should think of the reader not as a judge or authority figure but as a confidante, she said. There is no coercion in this reader-writer relationship. Trusting that the reader is a friend will help write the piece. Gordon spoke, too, of how the personal essay can and, to be more effective, probably should contain memoir-like narrative passages in addition to essayistic analyses of events.

It seems author David McGlynn was unconsciously trying to avoid such passages while writing essays about violence. He expressed ambivalence about having to convert a collection of these essays to memoir, but he admitted that the act of writing scenes and descriptions of long-ago events following the home invasion and murder of a high school classmate gave him a better understanding of himself. It also became the basis of his memoir A Door in the Ocean (2012). In McGlynn’s case, the pushback from his agent that he write a memoir ultimately made for a more meaningful take on a lifelong obsession.

So has memoir devoured the essay? It seemed as though the panel was saying, Yes, but; as though willing essayists in the audience to follow our hearts for as long as we can hold out. It’s a game plan I can live with. Before closing, moderator Debra Monroe offered a sort of end around, a way to avoid the memoir-or-essays tag altogether. Monroe described how author Jo Ann Beard managed this with her 1999 nonfiction work The Boys of My Youth, which bears only a title -- not followed by a colon or subtitle. On its release, reviewers identified Boys (which one Godzilla panelist described as a perfect book) as they saw it, some calling it memoir, others referring to it as a collection of personal stories.

“I am drawn to the shagginess of the essay,” Phillip Lopate writes in the introduction to his latest collection, Portrait Inside My Head (2013). I like this description and I like that he calls his latest assortment of essays a “hodgepodge,” a label I wish I could pull off with my own work. And how perfect that Lopate was in the audience that afternoon. One after the other, the writers at the table acknowledged the master.

The other issue I brought to AWP was teaching. Each year I am an instructor in Columbia’s summer program for high school students, Over three weeks I hope I help them develop their writing, working along a spectrum that begins with poetry and ends with long form nonfiction. As I passed hundreds of convention bookstalls, the challenge of keeping the teaching fresh for “my kids” was on my mind.

Am I the last to hear of Dave Eggers’ 826 National? The enterprising Mr. Eggers launched his writing and tutoring centers in 2002, and now there’s an 826 National book imprint. This YouTube video gives a little more background on one of its titles.

With all the publisher swag at AWP, one could fill a new tote (the editor of Brain, Child handed me a high-quality green and purple canvas number on the last day) without pulling out one’s wallet until lunch. And then I found myself flipping through 826 National’s Don’t Forget to Write, 50 creative writing lesson plans devised by some wonderful writers, including quirky Sarah Vowell (“The First Draft Is My Enemy: Revisions”) and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart contributor Kristen Schall (“How to Write a One-person Show About a Historical Figure”). When I happened on lesson plan # 32, I dug into my bag and plunked down $23. How could I not? That plan is written by Meghan Daum and titled simply “The Essay.”

Pat would be delighted if you followed her on Twitter @patricia_berry

Monday, March 25, 2013

Guest Blogger Shaun Hunter On Going Public With Her Memoir Manuscript

Shaun Hunter's personal essays have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies, including Embedded on the Home Front: Where Military and Civilian Lives Converge (Heritage House, 2012). Soon, she'll be contacting literary presses about her memoir, Under the Skin. Shaun lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where there are only 100 frost-free days per year. But on one of her trips south, we met at the Welcome Table Press essay symposium in New York City in 2011, where Shaun was one of the first writers to flag me down at a conference just to tell me she read my blog. Right then, I invited her to contribute a guest post, whenever she was ready. She's ready. 

Please welcome Shaun Hunter.

“You finish the book,” Janna Malamud Smith writes in An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Mastery. “It is time to reenter the world… It is tempting to turn around.”

I perch on this new place in my writing life: toes millimeters from the latest cliff edge, tempted to turn around. My book-length manuscript, five-plus years in the making, is “finished.”

I have completed other manuscripts – a graduate school thesis, and five biography books written for an educational publisher. Finishing those projects, I felt depleted, yet rewarded: deadlines met; degree conferred; contracts fulfilled. On to the next thing.

Not this time. After making the last edits to Under the Skin, a memoir about mothering, maternal legacy, and malignant melanoma, I thought I would feel buoyant, fired-up for the next leg of the journey. But the view from the edge of the cliff – a murky expanse fraught with rejection and indifference – is terrifying.

“Going public with your art,” author and psychotherapist Janna Smith explains, “is adulthood writ large: There is excitement, satisfaction, praise; there is also criticism, disappointment, and embarrassment.”

A mixed bag. The full meal deal of being a grown-up. A few weeks shy of my 52nd birthday, I’ve been around the block. I can usually spot the bright-green shoots of my own illusions and prune them back. I have thickish skin. Why is the prospect of going public with my memoir so paralyzing?

Last summer, my twenty-year-old daughter went hang-gliding on a backpacking trip in Europe. I heard about her adventure on Twitter, hours after she flung herself into a Swiss valley. At the time, I was relieved she hadn’t alerted me to her plan in advance, and glad I found out after she’d landed safely, unscathed and exuberant.

I went paragliding today! It was by far the most incredible thing I’ve ever done.

After the news sunk in, I realized that this determined, self-aware daughter of mine had checked off yet another fear on her list toward becoming an adult.
According to Smith, when it comes to artists going public with their work, many finish but proceed no further.

What about me? Am I going to be content with letting a completed manuscript sit in a drawer, or am I going to do what it takes to get this 200-page memoir to market? I’ve toyed with the idea of giving up, “living as a civilian” as the poet Shawna LeMay calls it. Like LeMay, during this long Alberta winter I have considered “surrendering in the same way a person who has hypothermia wants to go to sleep in the deepening snow.”

Bury the manuscript in the drifts of paper in my office. Hole up and write only for my own pleasure, sheltered from the snow squalls of rejection. Suss out another line of work. I know in my bones that none of these options is viable.

For years, I have been inching toward going public: workshopping essays in classes and critique groups, and publishing a few; reading my work to strangers; and most recently, pasting my shining face on my first website that identifies me as a writer.

I know that ego is going to push me -- and my manuscript -- out the door. After a decade of trying to absorb Buddhist ideas about egolessness and impermanence after my cancer diagnosis, this is uncomfortable to admit. But Smith’s book about the psychological dimensions of art-making emboldens me: I want to be seen. I care about being heard. It’s not a fantasy about being famous, but the pressing human need to be recognized and valued. “Few desires,” Smith writes, “are as primal.”

Of course, a publishing contract would be sweet compensation for my years of labor on this book; I will settle for active, visible participation. In a society caught up with “showing and spending,” as Adam Gopnik writes in a recent New Yorker article, I want to be part of a community of artists “devoted to seeing and making.”

Janna Smith assures me I can learn how to navigate the gaping canyon between private and public. Cultivate your saleswoman self, she suggests. Clothe your emotions in Gore-Tex. Summon bravado.

Get in the game.

After my daughter’s trip, she showed me the picture she snapped in mid-glide: her feet in a pair of borrowed sneakers dangling a hundred meters above solid ground. I could feel the mountain air press against my face, hear the snap of the nylon wing above me, sense panic gusting through my gut. In that glimpse into my daughter’s adventure, I imagined what it would be like to soar.

I have finished my manuscript. It is time to reenter the world. I will resist the temptation to turn around. I will strap myself to a sturdy, wind-worthy sailing craft, and step off the cliff into my adult life.

Again. Always.

Friday, March 22, 2013

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

> Jody Hedlund breaks down why writers need not feel a hot plume of shame when their work is being critiqued.

> Take that, adverbs. Stephen King hates you.

> A guest post on Gulf Coast journal's blog takes a different look at submission "tips".

> Last month, many venues marked the 50th anniversary of the suicide of poet Sylvia Plath; including Paste Magazine, which offered 27 of her quotes, combined with some of her original ink drawings.

> At JenningsWire, a bunch of strategies for selling books in 2013. The good, the unusual, the practical, the works. Long and loaded with links and analysis.

> Though the book give-away is over, scroll through the comments at this post for helpful advice on combining writing with life, at Writer With a Day Job.

> Though originally intended for screenwriters and directors, Ryan Rivard's pared-down "How to Write a Scene in 11 Steps" seems on-point for any writer.  I'd never heard anyone call a rough first draft a "scribble version" before. I like it.

> Finally -- agree, disagree, prevaricate -- or just nod along with the comment that notes how much fun John Scalzi can be when he's irritated. And he must have been irritated in a big way when he put together this screed for anyone who might ask him to write something for free. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Feeling old. Being old. And, writing.

Yesterday, I was feeling old. I shouldn't be. When you have in-laws who are in their 90s – and still cooking meals from scratch (her), talking about a game on TV and understanding every play (him), and doing their own laundry (together) – well, you have built-in reminders about the idea of "old."

And then there's Alice.

Last year, I was working with Alice, a writer on the West Coast, who was 83 years old at the time. She was producing new chapters of her very funny memoir, and I was offering feedback and edits as fast as she could send me her perfectly formatted pages.

There was always an urgency about her, both in her writing, and the way she was attacking her writing life – full ahead, after decades of doing other things. I always hoped some of her energy and momentum might rub off. Besides the memoir, we worked on an essay she eventually read on her local public radio station. And poems she sent off to a contest (she was awarded an honorable mention).

One day, Alice mentioned, in a causal off-handed way, that she wouldn't be back in touch for a week because she was scheduled for a "minor outpatient procedure." Then – silence.  For two weeks. Three. I wrote and rewrote an email, deliberating whether to send it or not, storing it in drafts. I picked up the phone twice, put it back both times.

I didn't want to know, I suppose.

Finally one morning while sipping coffee, computer screen open, I saw something from her email address. Subject line:  Alice

It began, "Hi, this is Alice's son. I thought you should know –

I looked away from the screen, then back.

...that she's had a little setback, but she asked me to send you the attached chapter…"

I prepared comments on Alice's pages, sent them back, and the next week, she was writing me back to ask about a tense shift on page 6.

Yesterday, I thought of Alice. It helped. I felt younger. Or maybe older, but in a good way. And in a big hurry. Full ahead.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Guest Blogger Ryder S. Ziebarth on Her First AWP Conference

When she walked into my creative nonfiction class at Rutgers University two years ago, Ryder Ziebarth knew she could write. She'd been a newspaper reporter, public relations specialist, and occasional columnist – but that was years ago. What she didn't know was if she could land freelance assignments or write what she wanted to write in her second incarnation of a writer's life: memoir, literary journalism, essays. She could. Now, she's a regular contributor to N (Nantucket) Magazine and Nantucket, and recently contributed to the Metropolitan Diary column of the New York Times.

Please welcome Ryder Ziebarth.

At the AWP conference in Boston last week, Pulitzer Prize winning author Tracy Kidder and his long time mentor and editor Richard Todd autographed their collaborative book, Good Prose, for me. Watching, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the similar relationship between E.B. White and his professor at Cornell University, William Strunk. A mentorship that culminated in The Elements of Style (you have one on your desk, right?).

 Most writers need that important one-on-one relationship with a trusted guru —a second pair of eyes, a reliable reader, one who does not placate, is not politically polite, and perhaps, someone who is good company. Writers get lonely.  

When Lisa asked if I'd write a guest post about my first AWP experience, I was both flattered and flustered. After two years as her student/coaching client, here I was being invited to contribute, not as a student, but as a reporter, a writer, chronicling my first time on the AWP front lines: left to my own devices, just as I was at the conference, trying to maneuver among new and established writers, MFA students, authors and their admirers, genre groupies and editors, trying to find my way to the page. Any page.

Since Lisa couldn’t attend this year, I wanted to soak in everything I could over my three days of this behemoth of an annual conference, for both of us. Early each morning, I rushed from my hotel through a raging late season blizzard, and then tunneled my way from one Westin Hotel to  another like a mole, and to the Hynes Auditorium, the heart of the conference from which all blood and ink flowed, for 10 hours each day. I powered my way into overcrowded seminars, borrowed too many pens, and passed out business cards in the seemingly endless ladies room lines. 

Having preregistered weeks prior to leaving my home in New Jersey, I could choose the panels I'd attend from the AWP digital catalog before arriving, but my original list changed many times, and then again, daily.  For me, mostly nonfiction-related seminars made the cut,  but I was able to squeak in a  tribute to former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, do some quality cruising through the book fair, and catch the tail end of  a panel including novelist and creative nonfiction craft guru Bill Roorbach. Quietly ducking in and ducking out of rooms mid-seminar was the only way to pack everything in, as I wrung the days dry.

For me, the standouts symposiums and panelists I remember most: The Unreliable Narrator in Creative Nonfiction (including Tom Larson, Mimi Schwartz, Michael Steinberg); I Essay To Be (Phillip Lopate, David Shields, Maggie Nelson, Amy Fusselman); The Art of the Ending (Amy Hemple);  The Urge Toward Memoir (Jeanette Winterson, Lily King); Flash Nonfiction (Sue William Silverman, Judith Kitchen, Dinty W. Moore). 

In the evenings and scattered through the days, there were keynote readings and panel discussions with noted authors Cheryl Strayed, Alice Hoffman, Tom Perotta, Tracy Kidder, Augusten Borroughs, Derek Walcott and others.  I sat, I stood, and at one pointed, lay prone on the last remaining inches of audience floor space.

Here are my top take-aways from the presentations and my overall experience of AWP:

Lesson One. No matter what topic or genre, what labels and writing-speak were bandied about  -- purple prose, literary journalism, flash nonfiction, braided essays, micro flash, personal narrative, memoirs, autobiography and spiritual autobiography (my head was spinning) -- one thing was clear: Good writing is good writing, and good writing practice is essential to becoming a writer of any import. Period.  

Lesson Two. Perhaps equally obvious, but worth repeating: write every day.  Get your process on. Malcolm Gladwell’s premise of practice, in his book 10,000 Hours, said Sue William Silverman, is how she became the author she is today.

Lesson Three. For the nonfiction writer, fight the urge to invent for the sake of narrative flow. Let memory serve the story, and even though it will not always be what someone else remembers, it will be your truth. Phillip Lopate was adamant that a writer “keep true to the artist truth. Facts and truths cannot be separated, they are hand in hand. Facts have implications and truths should never be altered.”
*Note to self: No cheating.

I won’t even go into debates and discussions on multiple narrative lines, third person narrative, or digression in story and plot lines; frankly, I am still burping-up this rich, three day buffet.

 I took copious notes, shyly asked several (burning) questions and made sure, when I could, to thank the writers and panelists for their time and contributions. Although I think most of them didn’t much care, and suspect they shook my hand while looking over my right shoulder to see if anyone more important was behind me, some were heartfelt in their appreciation.
*Note to self: be nice to everyone when famous.

Will I attend the AWP Seattle conference in 2014?  Yes, but with a lighter suitcase (fashion was low on the list), more power bars (the Au Bon Pain frequently ran out of food), and I will ask the Strunk to my White, the Todd to my inner Kidder, if she'll go with me.