Sunday, June 30, 2013

Notes From the Third Row: Nantucket Book Festival, Part I

When I was growing up, my father planned many family vacations around "business," which typically meant that one afternoon -- while my mother and I lounged poolside in Miami Beach or California -- my father went off for lunch with an old buddy in the polyester industry (it was the 60s and early 70s, folks).  I think the closest they got to discussing business was a quick "How's business?" followed by "Pretty good," then "I'm going to try the lobster."

In other words, just enough business to justify expensing the whole trip. (Of course, if anyone reading this works for the IRS, this is meant strictly as irony).

I learned a lot from my father.  

Last week I went on a vacation "business" trip, only I didn't take the family along.

Could there be a nicer place than the island of Nantucket, off the Massachusetts coast south of Cape Cod, for a business-combined-with-pleasure trip?  In June? As the guest of someone who had rented a sweet cottage, planned all meals and outings, and made sure we had wifi but also that we didn't use it much. I spent four relaxing days there, combining a much-needed mental and physical break from my regular life (can you say stress?), with a lovely plunge into the gathering of folks in love with books, authors, and writing, that is the Nantucket Book Festival.

Here are a few of the gems that stuck with me.

> At his keynote, Dennis Lehane (author of many bestselling novels including those that became the films Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone) said he had 20 reasons for why he writes. Numbers 1 through 10, he said, were all "because of libraries" and the role they played in his literary development, beginning with an impoverished childhood immeasurably enriched when a library card was placed in his hand. Numbers 11 through 20 all had to do with telling stories.

> Will Schwalbe, author of the memoir The End of Your Life Book Club (I was listening to his book on CD on my drive from NJ to the ferry in Hyannis, MA), made me sit up straighter when he said, "We are all in the end-of-your-life book club. We never know what will be the last book we will read." (Fun fact: Schwalbe is the founder of Cookstr, a terrific recipe site.)

Maggie Shipstead, author of the novel Seating Arrangements (which I'm reading now), discussed putting characters in  tough situations. Referencing her book's protagonist, she said, "He wanted sons, so I have him daughters. He wanted the wedding to be perfect, so his daughter is pregnant. He wanted everything perfect, so I made everything difficult." She said that "torturing" him was a way to reveal his character all along the narrative line.

I got to talk informally throughout the weekend with Schwalbe and Shipstead; I love finding out authors whose work I admire are also lovely people -- fun, funny, warm.

A few of the presentations, panels, and readings I especially liked:

Ann Leary, author of the novel The Good House.  She read just a few short sections,  interspersed with stories about writing inspiration/process.  The opening lines of her book are from a conversation with a realtor she once consulted during one of her "I'm depressed so I'll look at houses" moods. She had her early morning audience laughing and nodding. She writes mostly in bed.

Charles Graeber, author of the nonfiction book The Good Nurse, about serial murderer/nurse Charles Cullen, admitted it was slightly "creepy" to be the only person the jailed convict would speak to. He wrote the second half of the book in the voice of the detectives, who honed their police skills on violent Newark streets before moving on to suburban New Jersey. Was it fun learning how Cullen killed so many people in hospitals near my home, including the one where my kids were born?  Nope. But based on the excerpt Graeber read, I will read his book; excellent reportage combined with storytelling.

Amy Brill, author of the novel The Movement of Stars, based on 19th century Nantucket astronomer Maria Mitchell, had a big audience filled with members of the local scientific society. It took her more than 10 years of research, thought, writing and rewriting to craft the final manuscript, and she once lost a huge cache of hard copy research materials on an overseas flight.

A group presentation, led by poet Wyn Cooper, on the "intersection of poetry and song" examined the connection between what panelist Charlotte Pence, author of the anthology The Poetics of American Song Lyrics, called the "sister genres" of poetry and lyrics. Cellist and vocalist Jody Redhage described how she composes original music to accompany poems in a manner I cannot possibly explain, but at the moment, felt I completely understood. I have a love of lyrics and greatly admire those who can write narrative song lyrics. 

I'll have more highlights from the Nantucket Book Fest in another post soon.

This is part of a very occasional series on interesting stuff I pick up while sitting in the audience at a literary event of some sort. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Getting Out of Our Own (Writer's) Way

You can read a guest post from me today, titled "Writers! Get Out of Your Own Way" over at Sheila Boneham's blog, Write Here! Write Now!, in which I get a bit ruthless about the "obstacles" writers claim keep them from writing.  Kind of like what I do in Boot Camp.

The post lays out 14 tough-love tips. Here's an excerpt:
  • Now, look at the list of REAL obstacles. Choose which one to tackle first, then second. Be methodical. Creative. A little ruthless. Hire the dog walker. Sleep a little less. Shame your lazy sister into sharing some of Mom's doctor visits.
  • Find someone to hold you accountable. Another writer or someone who respects the time spent writing. Someone who will – just before you said you were going to finish X – send an email or pick up the phone and say: "I'm holding you to it. Is X done?"  It helps if this  is someone you would feel terrible about disappointing. Someone whose opinion you value, who you want to be proud of you.
  • Like the characters in your stories, the words on your page, YOU can change, edit, revise your life to make room for writing. The question is: Are you willing to make changes that others may not like?
  • Be a grown up. Stop whining. Stop talking to other writers (and emailing, texting, tweeting, posting to Facebook) about the reasons you can't seem to get the writing done or the writing you did do or the writing you hope to do. Just shut up already – full stop. Use that time and energy to write.
The full post is here

Friday, June 21, 2013

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, June 21, 2013 Edition

> For essayists who wonder which journals habitually feed the pages of the Best American series (and thus are ideal places to submit), Adam Regn Arvidson has some ideas (and statistics too).

> The Writer magazine has a new website.

> I'm not a fan of cookie-cutter writing advice, including the write-every-day-or-else mandate. Barbara Yoder adds her take, with a reminder that we not only have to find/steal/make time to write, but the important of giving ourselves the time, too.

> A very helpful article by Debra Gwartney on three major pitfalls of memoir writing, namely: an undeveloped *I* narrator character; poorly fleshed out scenes; choosing the wrong tense for your particular story. Good examples, too.

> What a few top women authors will be reading this summer.

> Can you listen to music with lyrics while you are writing?  Some writers can (not me, I like silence or soft instrumental). Masha Hamilton shares her playlist from the writing of her latest novel, chosen with the book's setting and themes in mind.

> Does the buzz of a coffee shop boost your productivity?  So much so that when you work from the peace and quiet (or unproductive buzz of home or office), that you find yourself yearning for it? Then Coffitivity is for you. (hat tip Laraine Herring)

> Finally, if you've been (ahem) procrastinating about signing up for my summer * I Should Be Writing!* Boot Camp for Procrastinators and Busy People...get busy. I begin kicking butt...I mean, helping and supporting writers....on Monday.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

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

Once upon a time, I was assigned to write an essay for O: The Oprah Magazine, on the experience of working with a high profile life coach. Her favorite response -- whenever I whined or complained, crabbed about the probability of rejection, the intractability of my ingrained bad habits, or simply noted that something I wanted to do might not work out – was:  "So what?"

Often, she said it three times: "So what? So what? So what?"

It worked. By confronting this question, I was forced to admit the answer:  So…nothing. I'll try again. I'll try something different. I'll find another way. I'll learn something.

Her retort made a powerful impression on me, and reminded me of the same advice I had first encountered a few years before in Carolyn See's fabulous book, Making a Literary Life, which I read ( about a decade after it was published), during the early months of my MFA program.

In it, See talks about creating a community to support  one's writing life, emotionally and financially. She was writing at a time before social media and other web and tech tools, and suggested that one way to do this is by writing "charming notes" to writers whose work we admire, inviting writers and editors out for a drink or coffee, and otherwise building human connections in the literary world.

See encourages writers to be bold – seek that assignment, submit that manuscript, ask for help, go to that conference, swap those tips and tricks, apply for that grant, enter that contest.

Her writing students and mentees, she writes, often blanched at the thought of contacting a writing world luminary (or any literary folk they didn't already know) and tried to wiggle out of the assignment: What if he/she doesn't respond?  What if I'm rebuffed? What if I say/do something silly?  What if my work is rejected?  What if I don't win contest/ get awarded the grant/land the assignment?

See's response:  So what?  "So what? So what? So what?"

When it comes to my writing life, I'm already something of a why-not-try-it-see-what-happens-you-never-know kind of gal. But not always. Sometimes, surprisingly enough, not with the big projects that matter a lot. There, I've sometimes been like See's students, side-stepping instead of stepping up.

But not lately.

Lately I find myself in a SO WHAT? kind of mood. And, I like it.

I've been busy contacting, asking, entering, seeking, querying, submitting, attending, applying. 

Some of it has worked out. Some won't.

So what?

So what? So what? So what?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

What I Write About When I Write About My Father

"Conversations I Can't Talk About," a nonfiction narrative essay which is part of my memoir manuscript, appears this week in the summer issue of the online literary journal, Lunch Ticket. Since Father's Day will arrive shortly, I'm especially touched by the timing because the essay, indeed my entire memoir, explores my relationship with my father just before--but mostly after--his death.

The piece begins:

In the spring of 2007, my father and I are discussing something important when the guy in the car behind us at the green light raps his horn. In the passenger seat, my father, a polite man of eighty years does not flinch, just glances in the rearview mirror and says, 'Hold your horses, buddy. Life is short.' I want to say something to my father, but when I look again, he is gone.
Of course he is. He had been dead by then for about six months. 
I did not have any telephone conversations with my father in the fall of 2006, between the time I last visited him in the hospital, 2,700 miles from my home, and the time he died there seven weeks later. I told myself it would be better not to call. Since I could not visit in person, I did not want to confuse him on the telephone with my voice. If my voice meant nothing to him, he might get upset—or more likely, I would. Or he might ask me to come. I did not want to have to remind him that I was, in fact, back at my own home in New Jersey and not still in Las Vegas, taking care of my mother in the house they had shared there for twenty-five years...
You can read the entire piece here.  

While over there, I hope you'll also read some of the other fine work in the issue, including an interview with Susan Orlean (talking influences, great books, nonfiction storytelling, and that oddity called "work/life balance"); an essay by Yuvi Salkow on depression, writing, and (yes) humor; and seriously good fiction, poetry and  a couple of other creative nonfiction pieces I wouldn't mind having written. Lunch Ticket is produced by the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles, and I so enjoyed working with their terrific editors.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Trip from Pragmatic to Optimistic. And Back Again.

Writers, if you've ever been a finalist in any kind of contest, and felt optimistic (or not) about your chances, you may be interested in the story of my journey along that route earlier this spring -- and what came next. It's featured in my newsletter, which went out over the weekend. If you're not on the list, you can read it here. (And, there's a cool giveaway going on that you may like, too.)

Monday, June 3, 2013

Write What You Know (and Love)? Worked for me.

Maybe I heard it somewhere when I was quite young: Write what you know. So that's what I did. As a teenager, I wrote about horses and riding and ice hockey. Later as a freelance writer (while in college, for fun, and in my early 20s, for food), I followed an edited version of the old adage:  Write what you don't know about what you do know.

Three-plus decades later, I'm still following that advice. At times. It's good advice, after all. That's why I share it with those I teach and edit and coach. The advice works, in various iterations, for literary markets and mainstream media, for writers who want to add to their publication credits, and even more seasoned writers who want to expand their reach to new reading audiences or add another quiver to their writing toolbox.

But it's especially good advice for newer writers, especially those seeking that first publishing credit. Start by writing about what you love.

I was horse crazy teenager, taking riding lessons, dreaming and reading about horses, hanging around shows. I subscribed to equestrian magazines and, at around age 14, sent a humor essay ("How to Know You've Gone Completely and Irreversibly Horse Crazy") to the now defunct magazine Horse, of Course.

In high school, my brother had season tickets to the New York Rangers and at first I only reluctantly went along. My essay about unexpectedly becoming a rabid hockey fan was published in the team's official magazine. When the Rangers traded beloved goalie Ed Giacomin, I sent a protest poem to the New York Times, which the sports editor printed.

I was writing about what I knew, and about what I loved.

My magazine professor at Syracuse University, suggested we write what we don't know about what we already know a lot about. By then I'd been a horse owner and competitor for a few years, so I sought assignments from equine publications to interview Olympic hopeful riders, star trainers, brilliant course designers.  I wanted to know what I didn't know:  the secrets of riding at a high level, how to teach a flighty horse to behave, the ways width, height, and spread of jumps determined course difficulty.

After graduation, I supported myself (though not my horse habit; that was Dad's gift) by writing about horses and equine sports for specialty and trade publications, and for mainstream newspapers and magazines. That led to a public relations job with sponsors of the United States Equestrian Team. When I stopped riding (marriage, motherhood, a mortgage!), I thought I was done with writing about horses. And I was, for a while. I went on to write about many other things I knew a lot about -- motherhood mostly.

But at some point, I always circle back.

A few years ago, I contributed an essay to WhyWe Ride: Women Writers on the Horses in Their Lives (Seal Press), which covered what I knew—my five horses and 20+ years competing—and what I was then only learning: how my equine passion could help me understand my teenage sons' responses to their own deeply held interests.  Another essay for the journal Sport Literate traced how an artifact of my horse show life – a tack truck – kept me connected to my past and provided courage to move on.

Given how well I've been served by putting my passions on the page, it surprised me, when I began teaching and editing, how frequently writers forget about, dismiss, or even avoid writing about the very things that they are most suited to write about, the things they love or that make them curious, engaged, intrigued. 

One student wrote about his children being grown and gone; losing faith in an old friend; a disastrous trip -- but never felt he'd written what mattered. I pointed out that in each piece, he referenced a strained relationship with his brother involving sports and financial ruin. Write about that, I urged. Out poured a series of essays and memoir pieces. He was writing fully and with intention about the one thing he knew most about, and in a way, loved – in the sense that he found it fulfilling to unravel the past on the page.

Two adult writers in a class were also reviving waylaid dreams of improving their musical skills, one on piano, the other the flute. Today, the piano player is a contributing essayist for a piano website, and the flutist recently published an essay about never having learned to properly count music. All of their pieces are about what they didn't know about something they already did know and loved.

Careers have been built this way, starting where you stand, or as my mother (and St. Francis) advised, "Bloom where you are planted."

Fiction writers too can plumb passion interests as a way to begin. Just ask Sara Gruen, who wrote the novel Riding Lessons long before Water for Elephants.  Attorneys John Grisham and Scott Turow set their early courtroom novels in the only world they knew. I have also worked with several novelists who generated publicity for their books by publishing essays about issues their novels' characters are passionate about.

Some tips for writing about what you know and love:

-         Think broadly about your topic (skiing as an active outdoor activity, for example) as well as specifically (how you felt missing a ski season due to a summertime injury).

-          Seek out local experts and "celebrities". I once found a retired ice hockey star living five miles from my home, quietly coaching a kids league.

-        Are you a curling lover taking that long-anticipated trip to the world curling championships?  Keep a journal to write from later. Or ask an editor if you can submit something about the experience. Live blog it for a sport site?

-          Double check facts, spelling.  Though I typically know my racing history, I once conflated the great racehorses War Admiral and Native Dancer, and came up with War Dancer.

-         Take notes about interesting people situations, conversations, experiences that you are privy to given your involvement in a specialized arena.

And getting it published:

-          Look for themed issues of  journals, magazines, websites. Themes can sometimes be interpreted broadly: a piece on a cat that helped you through grief might fit a "comfort" theme. Want to write about your illiterate grandfather?  Could fit an issue about "vulnerability".  Think outside, around, under the box.

-           Follow the calendar. If what you love and know about is connected to a season or holiday, write and submit months ahead. 
- Look for submission calls for collections in your sweet spot. I recently saw collections on knitting, tattoos, growing up Greek, and living near lakes.

-         Begin with the specialized publications, websites, blogs you like to read, then branch out.

Do I recommend you write only about what you already know about and love? No. How bored you might be after a while! But it's a great place to begin, return to, build from. Each time I write about horses now, I feel as though I hear the Cheers theme in the background -- it's the place I will always feel at home.