Monday, April 22, 2013

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

Finding other writers who share my background in journalism and public relations is always fun. Drew Myron heads a marketing communications company and as a journalist has covered news, arts, entertainment and travel for AOL, Northwest Best Places and other publications. She is writing instructor at Seashore Family Literacy, and the creator and host of "Off the Page,” an annual reading featuring Oregon writers. Thin Skin, her collection of photos and poems, was published this month. Visit her blog.

 Please welcome Drew Myron
I never aspired to serve as literary hostess. Eager to promote the work of writer-friends, I simply organized a reading. “Don’t wait for the party,” I said, in an unusually zealous state. “Be the party.”

Admittedly, I was in over my head. I had attended enough readings — both as writer and reader — to know these events can be real snoozers. You know this is true. You’ve sat there, as I have, bored and annoyed, wondering why you chose this over an episode of Mad Men.

But it turned out to be fun turning a typically staid event into a enjoyable, lively party. My first — an ensemble reading held at an art gallery — was so much fun I orchestrated another, and another. Ten years later, I’ve produced more than a dozen literary events, at a variety of venues and for varying audiences. I’ve worked with writers of all stripes — fiction, nonfiction, memoir, poetry and song — and all ages, from 8 to 80.

In my transition from shy-writer to event hostess, I’ve learned a great deal. Want to shine on stage? Let me share a few insider tips:

1. The stage is for acting--even, and especially--for writers.
Not naturally stage savvy? No need to pretend. If writers were performers we’d bask in attention but instead we’re hunkered over keyboards, wearing sweatpants and day-old hair.

An actress-friend offered me this life-changing nugget: You have two selves, she said. The writer-you and the actor-you. When you create, you are deep in inner-writer world. But when you share your writing, you must go into outer-actor world. At a reading, take on a persona. Allow the actor-you to share the wonderful work of writer-you.

Sounds wacky, I know. But viewing a reading as a performance is especially helpful to introverted writers. This “performance” is not a departure from our real selves, but more of a removed perspective that allows the shy writer to step out with confidence.

2. Don’t bore us to tears.
You’ve got a time limit — stick to it. Organizers have invited you and carefully orchestrated the event’s pace and flow. Don’t assume your work is captivating enough to allow additional time (it isn’t), especially in a group event. Don’t be the guy who reads past the allotted time, then looks to the hostess and asks, “Do I have time for one more?” If you have to ask, you’re out of time. And while the host may acquiesce, she will seethe inside, and likely not invite you back, and may even talk poorly about you to others. (Yes, this is personal experience; I’m not bitter, just seasoned). Always leave the audience a bit hungry — and eager to buy your book.

3.  Give a bit of backstory.
Purists will say “the work stands on its own” — meaning there’s no need for explanation. While it’s true you don’t want to beat the life out of your work with too much preamble, the audience has turned out to hear your words, from your mouth, in a live setting. Give us a glimpse of yourself. Let us in, let us like you.

4. Smile. Everything is better with a smile. Sound Pollyanna? Try it!

Seriously, a smile breaks resistance — yours and the audience’s. When your hands tremble and your voice quakes, relax your mouth, recall your best friend, and smile. The audience, says my actress friend, wants to like you. When you relax, your ease allows others to breathe a sigh of relief, too.

5. Don’t mumble through your entire reading with eyes buried in your pages. We want to see your face, and feel a connection. In the throes of a mumbler, we wonder why we didn’t stay home and read your book in the comfort of our pjs. But now we’ve lost interest in your book. You’ve lost a sale.  

6. Be prepared.
Why do writers, who have been invited as featured guests, show up to readings hapless and frazzled? From AWP to open mic nights, I’ve seen writers stumble to the podium with a look of dazed confusion as they page through reams of paper.

News Flash to Befuddled Writers In Crowded Rooms: You’ve been invited. Don’t insult the audience with an attitude that broadcasts that you’re too busy, distracted or important to care about this event.

7. Kindness matters — give thanks.
From the multitude of writers longing to be heard, your host chose you. That’s no small thing.  Literary events require planning, marketing, and varying degrees of mental, financial and emotional investment. Want to know what makes me happy? Appreciation from featured writers (also: glowing feedback from the audience).

After the reading, talk to people. Roam the room. Take time to thank those who support your efforts and promote your work. Be genuine, gracious and kind. Write your host a thank you note. It may seem old school but gratitude is timeless. And it’s true, what you give comes back to you.

Lastly, a few things that you probably already know, though some writers clearly don’t (trust me, this really happened):

8. Don’t bring your husband and insist he have an opportunity to read from his book, too. This isn’t Thriftway, no 2-for-1 deals.

9. If attending a reading as an audience member, don’t bring your own books to sell.  Sell your books at your reading, and/or your garage sale.

10.  Wear a clean shirt. You don’t have to go glam but please don’t show up in your garden grubbies. We get the hardworking-writer-vibe but, really, a clean black sweater works wonders.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Author Interview: Mimi Schwartz, on the second edition of Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

New Jersey, the Garden State, has a perpetually abundant crop of writers in every season, and some, like Mimi Schwartz, also write books that other writers in every corner of the country, look to for writing advice. The second edition of Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction (written with co-author Sondra Peel) is now available. I caught up with Mimi a few days before our paths intersected at an essay conference in Manhattan last weekend, and she agreed to answer my questions.

Q.  In its first edition, your book is a staple on the shelf of many essayists and memoir writers. Was there anything particularly challenging about creating the second edition?  Anything you especially wanted to expand upon or respond to given changes in the literary world since 2006?

A. Lots of interesting things have been happening to creative nonfiction—and our second edition reflects that. We have a new chapter, "Exploring the New Media," that explores the many online possibilities from blogs, to digital storytelling, to graphic memoir. We talk more about up-and-coming forms such as the lyric essay, the braided essay, and the personalized op ed essay you find in the Sunday Review of the New York Times. And we added a section on the role of humor. Part 2, our anthology, keeps the favorites of the first edition—and now includes some promising young writers, some classics by George Orwell and E.B. White, and several essay dealing with timely topics in exciting new formats.

Q.  In the preface, you write that nonfiction writers "begin with a question or puzzlement, and with the help of memory, research, reading, interviews, speculation, imagining – whatever it takes – we attempt to capture the complexity of our subject."  It's interesting that the list only begins with memory, and then cites other avenues of exploration that sadly it seems many writers skip over.

A. “Research,” if done well, certainly enriches a narrative -- whether writing about a childhood memory from third grade or about what happened yesterday. But so does memory and imagination. That is why we have a chapter on “The Role of Research” – and also have a new essay by Lisa Knopp called “Perhapsing” that shows how speculation, even daydreaming, can legitimately enhance true stories.

Q.  You offer several options for gathering information. With information at our fingertips all day long (Google, Wikipedia, websites), have writers paradoxically gotten lazier about the kinds of rich experiential "research" that could make huge contributions to their work – trips out into the physical world to observe, interview, revisit a place, soak up creative energy, information, nuance?  

A. Both forms of research—the ones we read and the ones we feel—are essential for the authenticity of an experience. So yes, I agree with you. Check out Google but also get out there and look, listen, smell, taste, and touch.

 Q.  What advice do you give a writer who, after engaging in research and/or interviews, finds their memory is flawed, either in a significant way, and/or in more minor ways?

A. What to do about discrepancies of memory depends on the story we are telling. Sometimes I let the reader know there’s another point of view, as in “I remember this, but my mother says that….” Sometimes, as in my marriage memoir, Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, I use dialogue—or a footnote—to let the other person have a say. And sometimes I decide it doesn’t matter. As Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff told their mother when she said both their memoirs were incorrect, “Okay. Then write your own story!” We discuss the struggle and various solutions in Writing True.

Q. Your book offers writing exercises, including some lengthy and multi-step ones that I imagine can catapult a writer to a whole list of possible new pieces. For the writer working on his/her own, how might you suggest incorporating writing exercises into everyday writing practice?  And what makes a really good writing exercise?

A. A good writing exercise is one that makes us want to write more. Often we don’t know that right away.  It may be a day, a week, a year later, that we have more to say. That’s why we recommend a notebook—either by hand or on a computer—and devote one chapter to “The Power of the Notebook.” We also discuss free online exercises for getting started.  Try them all, for our belief is: If you don’t have anything on paper, you have nothing to work with!

Q.  I love the chapter "Ten Ways to a Draft," with outside-the-norm ideas for moving toward the writing -- freelisting, map making, time lines, memory chains, clustering, among others. I bet some of these will seem surprising to writers whose inclination is always to go first (or to remain at all times) at the keyboard. How do you see these activities helping writers? Are they mostly intended for those who are stuck? Or do they have value for any writer of nonfiction?

A. I’ve done many of these exercises more than once—and am always surprised by how they trigger new ideas, memories, and details. Clustering, for example, is one I use for new ideas and to help me get unstuck. I put an emotionally loaded word in the middle of the page, free associate as it proscribes, and suddenly there is new energy for writing on.

Q. The chapter, "Workshopping a Draft," is loaded with good advice, and I was especially pleased with the emphasis on the role of listening, both when one's own work is being discussed and when someone else's piece is being reviewed. What is the principle benefit of the workshop, and how can listening skills help a writer got the most out of one?

A. We know stories well in our head, but key details often never reach the page. Workshops, if well run, can help a writer connect the dots between what is intended and what the readers receive. Responses, using our guidelines, lead to discoveries and new insights that make revisions more meaningful.

Q.  In the book, you self-identify as an "underwriter" whose first drafts "tend to be skimpy," but get fleshed out once down on paper "following the clues of first words."  Can you explain how that works for you?  Has your approach changed at all over time, as you've written and published more and more work?

A. My style stays the same. I like to find the story first and then flesh it out—a classic underwriter. What has changed is what I tell myself after I have a draft. I know to coach myself to add detail (and I can cut it back later) and I know to ask at the end “Have a let myself off the hook too easily? Do I need to go deeper?” The answer is almost always, “Yes!”

Q.  Your book includes an anthology of excellent published works by an interesting group of CNF writers. I love what you write in the introduction: "We suggest reading a work once for pleasure and once as a writer looking at craft. It helps to star favorite parts, make comments in the margins…and ask the same questions you ask when reading works-in-progress – about theme, characterization, narrative thrust, pacing, scene development, foreshadowing, use of dialogue and so on."  This, to me, is the heart of reading as a writer. How would you describe the role of reading for writers? Particularly maybe for the writer who claims that they avoid reading too much in their genre, afraid it will unduly influence their work?

A. Reading others gives you permission to try out new ideas and forms. I found the structure for my book, Good Neighbors, Bad Times, Echoes of My Father’s Village after reading Alison Owings' series of dramatic interviews in Frauen, Women of the Third Reich. Her use of multiple points of view was just what I needed—even though her 30 three-page vignettes became full-length chapters in my book of visits with Christians and Jews from my father’s village, all remembering the past.  I do stay away from reading on the same subject before I have my thoughts on paper. I want to know what I think before I learn what others think.

Q.  In a chapter new to the second edition, "Exploring New Media," you offer some cool exercises that might help a CNF writer leap to new ways of telling their stories using online tools. Some writers can blog (or maintain an active Tumblr or Twitter feed) and still produce publishable longer work, while others find the more they write online, the less they have to say in longer form essays or memoir. Any advice?

A. It always comes down to what works for you. Jenny Spinner, who has a blog that we discuss in Writing True, found it was a great platform for writing a book. For others, too much online writing can discourage the Muse; it becomes another form of writer procrastination, like cleaning the refrigerator or the closets.

Q.  What kind of feedback do you get from readers of Writing True?

A. What makes Writing True the most gratifying is when writers who used it in a class stop me at conferences like AWP and ask me to autograph their copy. A textbook? Sondra Perl, my co-author, and I wanted to write a textbook that wasn’t a textbook, and whenever that happens, I think: We did it!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, April 5, 2013 Edition

> Allison Amend's letter to her younger writer self, at the Glimmer Train blog: Just read it.

> Also on the Glimmer Train blog again (yes, it's that good, always), Matthew Salesses on being open to opportunity as a writer (and recognizing it).

> When a half-dozen writer friends are talking about a new online destination, I tend to visit and noodle around. Have you investigated Medium yet?  

> Elizabeth Spiers, author and digital entrepreneur, on why a paper notebook is still one of her fave tools (posted at Medium).

> Suzanne Strempek Shea gives some no-nonsense tough love talk to writers with excuses (um, that would be nearly every writer, sometimes, I guess).

> Students have asked me about putting together a writer bio when you have no published credits. Laurie at Quips & Tips has a few thoughts.  (hat tip @ryder_ziebarth)

> Another mystery solved -- finding free quality images to use on a blog, via Where Writers Win. I once worked (virtually) with the author of this guest post, Michelle Hutchinson, on a web project. She was smart then, smarter now.

> The "7 Things I've Learned So Far" series at Writer's Digest sometimes yields gems. Like this one on the list from Leah Bobet: "... sometimes when writing advice looks obvious, or stupid, or like it makes no sense, it’s because your brain isn’t in the place yet where that piece of advice is useful. Write it down in a file. Go back and look at that file every six months or so. One day it’ll be the exact thing you needed to hear." (via @prsatran)

> Final few days to sign up for *I Should Be Writing!* Boot Camp (starts Monday, 4/8).

> Finally, even if verbs-as-nouns don't bother you, check out this post at the New York Times' Opinionator blog, if only to scroll down the page for the delicious Grant Snider strip, "How to Make Write."  (hat tip Middle Aged Diva)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Is it all really copy someday for nonfiction writers?

"No matter what happens, it's all copy." – Nora Ephron, quoting her mother

Those of us who write nonfiction often offer some variation of this observation to other nonfiction writers, and to ourselves, usually when something unpleasant, or even slightly terrible happens. We lose a job, fall out with a friend, are treated shabbily by someone or some system, crash the car, lose a fight, a chance, a love.

"Ah well," we nonfiction narrative writers and personal essayists and memoir writers say to one another, "It will all be copy one day."

It's a way to remind ourselves that this too shall pass, that while we are gathering even lousy life experiences, one day we will probably write about them, and who knows, maybe by then they won't seem quite so bad. Or maybe by then we will have learned something from the crappy experience, even if that something hurts, even if it's something we wished to avoid learning, even if all we learned is that we never want to learn it again.

As shorthand expressions go, "It's all copy someday," seems to me both spot-on smart, and also a bit sad. 

Really? Is that all we can say about the bad luck and bad times that befall us and others? That it's just one more thing? Are we nonfiction writers so crass that we think of every lousy thing that happens as fuel to feed the hungry page?  

Or are we keenly aware that going to the page one day with our terrible experiences and complicated emotions, is a gift, a second chance to figure out what we find too hard to process at the time? A way to honor what happened by finding some meaning?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Giving Away Phillip, Housekeeping, and Ch Ch Ch Changes

This and that, maybe of interest...

> My once-in-a-while newsletter went out last night, and includes a giveaway for Phillip Lopate's newest craft book, To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction.  You can grab the newsletter here. While there, you can enter for a chance at the book, and if you like, subscribe to future mailings.

> For those of you who read blog posts via Google Reader, did you know the service will cease to exist after July 1?  'Tis true. Seems there are several alternates out there promising to move Reader feeds over with a few clicks. Feedly is one.

> If you've been slogging through on your own without enough pages to show for it, without enjoying the writing, Boot Camp starts Monday, April 8 (and ends a full week before Memorial Day). 

> Changes are coming to the blog. Because, why not?  I do like to shake things up once in a while. And, it's spring. Any suggestions?  Leave in comments or email me.