Friday, August 30, 2013

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- August 30, 2013 Edition

> I love this analysis from debut novelist Amy Sue Nathan on the size of her body and how she figured out why it doesn't matter, even when there's no podium to hide behind at a book event -- or ever. 

> You've probably seen Neil Hilbron's performance of his "OCD" poem by now, but here it is in case you haven't. My 15-year-old son brought it to my attention three days before it went viral. (I guess I've done something a little bit right -- meaning my kid noticing poetry; I don't know Neil at all.)

> Writing at the time of day (or night) when your body and mind are best suited to the task makes sense. But when life circumstances can't be altered, it's also possible to be productive even at non-peak times.

> This site -- and project, and labor of love -- says the World Needs More Love Letters. I won't argue.

> Perhaps because I spent a week in August giving interactive writing workshops at senior living facilities here in New Jersey, I was especially moved by the 96-year-old man who wrote lyrics to honor his recently-deceased wife of 72 years and inspired young musicians to put it to music.

> Need to keep track of your writing time, to sit still and write and not 
get up until...well maybe until you hear an alarm? There's a (free) app for that.

> Have you read Priscilla Gilman's essay in the New York Times Book Review about her son's "problem" of reading too soon, and why she knew it would instead one day serve him? 

> Looking for an additional place to find calls for submission?  Wordcraft's blog runs a list in their Submission Sunday posts; I've found things here I didn't encounter elsewhere.

> And, if you've got a lengthy piece to place, try this list of journals that like it long.

> Finally, what unconventional things have authors done in the name of getting their book better known?  Apparently, nearly everything. And why not?  Many of their *tricks* worked!

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

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

Ah, the workshop-style writer's conference: Two parts dread, one part excitement. Studying with a prominent author you admire. Soaking in the wisdom of stellar faculty. Being intimidated, awed, or maybe not-so-impressed by your workshop-mates' work. Anything can happen. And it's always fun, and often educational, to get an inside glimpse into the more well-known ones as Lesley Green Leben does, below.

Over the last couple of years, it's been my good luck to have Lesley in my online classes, and as a writing coaching client. What a pleasure to see her work grow. She's a contributing writer to Grand Piano Passion and her essays and articles have also appeared online in More Magazine and Dan's Papers.

Please welcome Lesley Green Leben.

I pull myself out of bed, wash my face, and grab my small carry-on. Before I can yawn I am on the Hampton Jitney headed from my New York City apartment to Southampton, Long Island - a 92 mile distance - for the 12 day Stony Brook Southampton Writers Conference. I have been accepted into the memoir workshop with the illustrious Mary Karr. I’m a fairly new writer (more verb than noun) and this is my first writers conference. I settle into my seat and pull out the memoir excerpts of my 12 classmates, each 10 pages, sent via e-mail, and read.


I suddenly realize that they're all really good. I'm overwhelmed by a wave of self-doubt:  Am I good enough to be in this class? Will Mary like me? Will she like my writing? And most important, Will I have someone to eat lunch with every day? I picture myself sitting in a small plastic chair, alone at a big white metal table, trying to feign interest in my tuna fish sandwich. I tell myself that if I have to choose between Mary liking me or my writing, I would choose my writing because that is the way a real writer would think.
I walk into the lobby of Duke Lecture Hall where the attendees are gathering. People introduce themselves and I quickly meet a few of the 12 students in Mary's class, 11 women and 2 men.  At 51, I was worried that I would be the oldest, but I discover instead that I am among the youngest.  I also meet people taking other workshops: fiction with Meg Wolitzer or Melissa Bank; poetry with Billy Collins or Heather McHugh; memoir with Roger Rosenblatt or Matt Klam. Everyone is friendly.

The next day, I pop out of bed at 6:38 am (two hours earlier than normal), a routine that will continue the entire 12 days. Each morning, my mind is racing, bubbling with ideas from the numerous craft lectures and readings the day before, given by the fiction, memoir and poetry workshop leaders, as well as the writers Daniel Menaker, Marilyn Nelson, Renee Shafransky, Julie Sheehan, Emma Walton Hamilton, Joe Mantello, Jon Robin Baitz and others. I hop into my car, blast the radio, and vibrate my way to class.

Over the 10 days, we meet with the beautiful, brilliant Mary Karr (whom I dubbed "The Queen of Carnality") every other day, and workshop our 10-page memoir excerpts. The night before it is my turn, I'm nervous. I usually write short humorous essays but I submitted a serious essay about my dad.  A few classmates told me that they were so moved by the piece they cried, so I feel confident Mary will like it. 

I daydream how things will play out. Mary will hold my essay high above her head, then in her Texas twang say, "Miss Lesley, this is the most brilliant piece of writing I have read in a long time. Class, let's take a moment to applaud Lesley's piece." The next day Mary starts, "Miss Lesley," but the words coming out of Mary's mouth don't match my fantasy. I hear "Where's the carnality in the scene? Where’s the fearfulness, I don't see Dad's anger…"

I feel a stinging in my eyes and before I know it, I am crying. Big salty tears stream down my face from under my red framed glasses. Mary says, "Oh no, oh no" and jumps up to hug me. Other people hug me too because at this point we are already one big workshop family. I hear kind words from my classmates, yet I can't shake the feeling that it isn’t my writing being critiqued but me, personally.

Back in my room, I am able to separate my feelings a little better. Deep down, I know Mary is right, I can do better. I go back to my essay to write from the inside out as Mary taught us. I close my eyes and try to smell my mother's kitchen.  I remember the big glob of emotion stuck in my throat whenever my father yelled at my mother, my nighttime ritual of tapping my night table an even number of times before bed, the pattern of the wallpaper in my childhood kitchen.  I put it all in my story. On the last day we read a few edits; all our stories are more vivid.

The second week, three-day mini workshops are held in poetry, children's book writing, memoir, fiction, and playwriting.  On a whim, I chose poetry with Star Black. I am the only non poet in the class and it is to Ms. Black's credit that I leave feeling like Maya Angelou. My snowball poem is extremely compact: "only rolled a few inches" (for you non-poets, not a good thing), but I challenged myself. I write a sonnet, a haiku, a name poem, a Catullus (great for getting your aggressions out), and others.

There are readings every night after dinner by well-known authors like James Salter, Jim Lehrer, and Ursula Hegi, followed by a wine reception. The conference culminates with a group reading (one page double-spaced) in the auditorium -- a great way to support the members of your workshop and hear pieces from other genres. Everyone is a bit nervous, like turning your skis downhill, but there is a great sense of accomplishment afterwards.

What a wonderful experience; I encourage everyone to apply. If you are accepted, trust that you have earned the right to be there. If you're still feeling insecure, I have compiled a few tips to help you better fit in: 

1. Say you read The New Yorker. (Even if you don't.)
2. A couple of Proust quotes go a long way. (Google "Famous Proust Quotes")
3. As you listen to the poetry readings, which can be particularly dense and esoteric, knit your brow and nod.
4. Indiscriminate use of the word "fuck" is encouraged, especially in poetry. Let loose a little.
5. Be extremely self-deprecating and insecure about your own writing: no one trusts a confident writer.

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Summer Full of Publication

This summer has been good to me, publication-wise.* Excerpts from my memoir manuscript have been appearing in literary journals with a bit more frequency, including the narrative piece, "Old Men Who Write," which is now part of the first online issue of Under The Sun.

It traces my experience several years ago when a writing class I offered at my local library brought me into contact with two elderly men who -- what else? -- reminded me so strongly of my father, and the confusion this caused me as I worked hard to maintain our respective roles.

Here's a bit of it, which picks up in the middle of a class, and focuses on one student, Robert, who is 90 years old:

...I begin a discussion about reaching back in our lives for stories, and I notice Robert’s brown-flecked big hand resting on a small diary, the once-black leather worn to dull brown on all edges. I ask him about it. 
“This is my diary from when I was a boy, in the 1920s. Oh, there’s a lot of stories in here, you bet,” he says.  I expect him to say more, but he quiets, nods, and taps his fingers on the book.  For a second, I want to reach across and push open the clasp (does it still lock, I wonder?), but of course I do not. 
“I hope you’re thinking of writing about some of those times?” I ask, stupidly impressed with myself. 
“Oh, I don’t know. It was all so long ago. I’m pretty old, you know,” he says, his hand stroking the book, his eyes averted to a shelf of nearby reference books. 
“Well, that’s okay,” I say, not knowing what else to say. 
Robert throws his arms up in the air and smiles. “It’s okay that I’m old? Well, thank you very much!” The lightheartedness is back in his tone, the tease returned to his watery eye.Everyone laughs. I notice he’s crossed his stilt-like legs one over the other at the knee the way my father used to and, also like my father, that on his eyeglasses a frayed Band-Aid cushions the part over the bridge of his nose. I am glad to have my notes to concentrate on, printed out, slid into plastic sheet protectors, in a neat three-ring binder, because I don’t know what will happen if I keep looking Robert’s way. As I discuss writing, I glance at each student and try to ignore Robert’s slow nods, the way he raises an index finger in the air and dips it slightly to signal his agreement. 
I can’t look, and I can’t look away.
You can read the whole thing here.

There's a bit of a full-circle moment about this. It comes just as I'm preparing to present brief, interactive writing workshops at a bunch of senior citizen centers in southern New Jersey this week. 

Life is like that sometimes.  Writing too.

*Oh, the rejections still arrive too; but when there's a good acceptance/publication run, and it coincides with an otherwise stressful couple of months, you bet I'm going to brag just a little bit!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, August 9, 2013 Edition

> Do literary agents go to Google to check out a prospective client? You bet. The Write Life, a new site bulging with good advice, asked agents. They answered

> Over at Southern Spines, Allison Law has some questions for Charlotte Pence, author of The Poetics of American Song Lyrics, about song lyrics as literature.

> Memoir writers will want to check out Beth Kephart's new book 
 Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir; she sums up a few of her tips here.

> I love finding essays in different forms, and while the numbered list isn't exactly new, how about 99 of them? All on writer Daniel Nester's blog, and collectively titled (and listed as) 99 Days of Notes.  (hat tip Erika Dreifus)

> Lots of folks have been wondering what her next project might be, and now we know. Jennifer Niesslein, a co-founder of Brain, Child magazine (which was sold last year), is launching Full Grown People. And essayists -- she's looking for submissions.

> Looking for a daily writing prompt to get you through the month of August?  Try the list here at Middlesage (scroll down).

> Or, find inspiration aplenty with the glorious images from the winning entries of the 2013 National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest.

> I feel better just looking at this writer's room-of-her-own

> Finally, Riffle brings you the literary names you probably don't want to give a child. 

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

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

In June, I met poet Tom Mallouk, not on the relatively small territory between our respective New Jersey and Pennsylvania homes, but hundreds of miles north at the Nantucket Book Festival, which makes some sense since he's spent time on the island for many years. Tom was there to introduce his poetry book, Nantucket Revisited (Antrim House) 

When I asked him to contribute a guest post for my blog, he demurred, but then wrote back, "Here's a poem I've written addressed to other writers, designed to entertain my comrades and offer a humorous perspective on the writing and workshop process for poets."

I think it applies to any writer, poet or prose, who has sat in a workshop.

To My Fellow Writers

I want you to feel about this poem
the delight I feel about every poem
shortly after I write the first draft.
Before the workshop points out the clichés,
hackneyed metaphors or I realize it’s the same poem
I’ve been writing for thirty years.

It’s the feeling of the rush of new love
and, the cliché notwithstanding,
that’s not just a metaphor.
Neuroscientists maintain connections
suffuse the brain with flush
inducing chemicals like serotonin
and others with too many syllables
for a respectable poem

If I could spare you
that cold slap of embarrassment
and regret that gets you hunched over
the manuscript wondering what you were thinking,
comparing this to the transformative
dream you scribbled illegibly in the leather
bound notebook you keep
by the side of the bed to remind yourself
you are a writer, the dream
that has slipped away like wet
spaghetti down the drain
of your unconscious mind, I would.

But wouldn’t you persist in reworking
every line, creating a narrative subplot,
pruning each excess syllable as you chip
away at this unwieldy hunk of rock, believing
in its essential beauty, believing something
that started with such promise can’t possibly
belong in the scrap yard of broken poems.

You could abandon it like a movie star
ends a marriage, hoping
the next time the stars will align
or you can recommit to the toil of a deeper love
where you question not just the words
but yourself, where you open yourself
to the life of the poem, surrender to it
and love it not for what you want it to be
but for what it is trying to become.

But in any case I want you to believe,
as I sometimes do, in the afterglow
of verbal love making, that I’ve penetrated
some barely perceptible fissure
in the otherwise seamless marble of meaning,
a fissure that has been staring out
into the existential abyss waiting for someone,
and in this case me, to notice.
I want you to imagine you could have written
this poem, even rue the fact that you didn’t,
and still be glad that someone did.

- Tom Mallouk

Monday, August 5, 2013

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

Over the past six months, I've been getting a new view, from the other side of the desk, as creative nonfiction editor for the new online journal Compose. We're now in the middle of reading, selecting, and editing material for the Fall 2013 issue (the journal's second).  Founder and editor-in-chief Suzannah Windsor (you may know her as founder of the group blog Write It Sideways), took a few minutes to talk to me about her journal start-up experience and plans.

Lisa Romeo:  To date, about fours months into the process of inviting submissions for future issues, what has surprised you the most -- pleasantly or not -- from the editor's seat?

Suzannah Windsor: I have to say I was surprised by the number of submissions we received in the first month, because I assumed things would be a bit quiet in the beginning. I've also been pleasantly surprised at the quality of the submissions; the majority are polished and professional, even if not quite right for us. While we've received some submissions from newer writers, many are MFA graduates with several publications already under their belts. Others have collections of short stories or poetry forthcoming or published by small presses. It's lovely that we're getting a combination of new writers, emerging writers, and established writers all at once, and it's encouraging that they're interested in working with us, in particular.

LR: What has the experience been like for you in setting up the journal, establishing submission guidelines, creating the editors' roles, and more or less mothering the whole enterprise into existence?

SW: It's been a whole lot of work and plenty of trial-and-error to get where we are today. Many of the problems or inefficiencies we've faced have been things that couldn't really have been anticipated until they happened, so we've had to think on our feet. The biggest challenge has been just getting everything in place and running smoothly. There's a big difference between starting a literary journal and building a successful literary journal, and that's both an exciting challenge and an incredibly daunting task. Even when I think I've gotten ahead of my to-do list, there's always plenty more I could be doing.

LR:  If I'm not mistaken, Compose has editors who live on three different continents. Was that your intention, to infuse the editorial decision-making process with an international world view, or just coincidence?

SW: At the moment, we're divided between the United States and Australia, but if you count our home countries, we range from the US to Canada, Australia, Cuba and Dominican Republic. It wasn't at all intentional, but I do think an international perspective is an advantage. Because we're an online publication and our readers are from all over the world, we want to be able to provide them with a culturally diverse reading experience.

LR:  Surely with your work on Write it Sideways, and your own personal creative writing, as well as a busy family life, you had a lot on your agenda already. So what was it about the idea of an online literary journal that spurred you into action? 

SW: I'll admit—with four children (including toddler twins)—I am committed-to-the-max at the moment. But, I'm also aware that in a few years all of my children will be in school and I'll suddenly have a lot more time to commit to my work. Between now and then, I'd like to build up my writing and editing experience as much as possible. Compose has been a good step toward gaining that experience, but it's also something I've wanted to do for a long time because of my love for reading and writing short fiction. The journal is both good experience and a passion project.

LR: Is there anything you are planning or hoping that Compose can do that other online literary journals are not doing?

SW: I hope we'll be known for featuring established voices alongside emerging ones, because I know from experience how exciting it is to see your work published in the same issue as a writer you admire. It can give a struggling writer a real confidence boost. Aside from that, I hope that we can consistently publish quality work and simply be known as a great read. Whereas some journals are only read by the writers who submit to them, I want us to reach a much wider audience. 

LR: Can you give my readers who are writers any submission tips either for Compose in particular, or for online journals in general (or both)?

SW: When someone submits something that is obviously not a good fit for Compose, I have a good idea that they haven't done their homework. First, always read the submission guidelines thoroughly. Most journals have similar guidelines, but some prefer to have a cover letter with a short bio included, some don't accept simultaneous submissions, and some even want a statement about why you believe your work fits their vision. 

Second, read at least a few pieces from the journal to get a good feel for what they publish. A piece that's perfect for The Missouri Review most likely won't be right for Caketrain. Each publication has its own aesthetic, so take note of genre, style, tone and length.

Third, don't submit until you're sure the piece is ready. We've had several pieces withdrawn shortly after submission, with the writers saying they need to make some changes. Not only does this indicate to us that the writer submitted too soon, it's also a bit of a hassle from the editors' side if they've already started to read and consider the piece. Let your work sit for a week or two after you think it's done, and you'll probably find it could still be improved.

LR: Here's something writers wonder about and debate. When you see that a writer has sent a simultaneous submission, does that make you read it and respond quickly so that you don't chance losing a great piece; or does a simultaneous submission make you think it may be out at a large number of other journals, and there's a good chance it will be withdrawn, so it falls to the bottom of your list?

SW: I really don't think it makes a difference either way unless I think the piece is something we'd really hate to lose. I don't read submissions in full until the senior editors are ready to accept something, but I do get a sneak peek at everything when I assign pieces to editors for reading. So, if I were to see something that captivated me enough in the opening lines and compelled me to read the entire piece right away, I'd probably get the editors to read and vote on it right away. But, I would do the same whether the piece was explicitly labeled as being a simultaneous submission or not. Unless a journal's guidelines state no simultaneous submissions, I think we all expect them nowadays.

LR: There's been some push-back lately among print journals about the proliferation of online journals, some of which seem little more than an individual collecting submitted poems, stories and essays, and putting them up on a blogging platform with little editorial development and scant readership, amounting to a publication credit line on a resume or CV that's hardly more credible than a personal blog or amateur site. Thoughts?

SW: I completely agree. There are thousands of these sites, many of which I assume are read only by the people published in them. Let me say that our process bears no resemblance to these sites, and neither does our product. I often hear from our readers how much they're enjoying our first issue, which means we're already reaching and connecting with people. When a submission comes our way, it receives multiple reads and opinions, and almost every long-form piece we've accepted goes through at least one careful revision with a senior editor. 

Writer Eva Langston, a contributor to our Spring 2013 issue, has said “The editors encouraged and supported me through the process [of editing my story]. I was amazed they put so much time and energy into my dinky two-page story. And yet, I was glad for it. They had me change 1% of my piece, but it made the story 100% better.” 

Still, I hope people don't confuse these amateur sites with some of the longer-standing online journals that publish excellent work but are simple (and perhaps dated) in their design. On the other hand, there are plenty of good-looking sites that publish unpolished work. Design is nice, but content has to be the end focus.

LR: You decided from the start to include the three major genres – fiction, poetry, nonfiction – as well as artwork, feature articles, interviews and book excerpts. Some journals start out with more limited offerings. What made you want to present the full spectrum right from the start, and in retrospect was that a difficult way to begin?

SW: Yes, it was ambitious, but I figured—why tiptoe our way in? If the perfect editors hadn't presented themselves in each genre, I might've just stuck with poetry and fiction, but things have worked out really well in that respect.

LR: What do you hope a reader takes away from each issue of Compose?

SW: If everyone who reads our journal could go away remembering just one piece, and have that piece come back to them again and again—a particular line, an image, a conflict—then mission accomplished. Many of the pieces from our first issue have had that effect on me, changing my life in some small way. Also, because the majority of our audience are writers as well as readers, I hope they'll come away from reading Compose with a renewed desire to write.

You can read another interview with Suzannah at Review Review. The submissions guidelines for Compose are here.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, August 2, 2013 Edition

> I've not yet had a chance to read any of the pieces posted there, but I'm intrigued by The Big Roundtable, a new place on the web for long-form nonfiction (5000-30K words).

> When revising just isn't working, reconsider the blank page.

> AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) has announced the accepted seminars, panels and readings for their 2014 conference in Seattle
The long list is here (PDF).

> Did you know that New Pages lists the blog links for a couple of hundred writers, alphabetically by writers' last name?

> Talk about the imagined pressure to join the "family business" -- what if you were part of the King clan?

> Another place for your (shorter) nonfiction is Tell Us A Story, where a new piece goes up every Wednesday.

> Slightly off-topic, but maybe not if you consider these "33 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Die," as a way to find new essay ideas or motivations for your fiction characters.

> If you use Gmail and have noticed the new email sorting that is being automatically imposed on your inbox and don't like it, here's an easy way to turn it off and return to seeing all your email at once.  (This has been especially irksome to me personally because you know what Google, I'll decide what's important to me, not you, OK?; and if you subscribe to blogs or newsletters, those emails are likely now going to different folders, unnoticed.)

> Working hard to earn money from your freelance writing? Check out this post, listing 15 blogs that can help.

> Finally, everyone is talking about the convocation speech given this spring by the writer George Saunders at Syracuse University (I'm class of...well, long ago). One word: kindness.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Another Piece of the Memoir Pie

Many months after I first realized that my memoir was all about my father's death and my grief at midlife, what I didn't yet understand was that there was other grieving to do, grieving connected to other loss, the loss that comes from choices and decisions made during his life -- and those that were thrust upon him.

This essay (an excerpt from the manuscript), now appearing in the August issue of Pithead Chapel, looks at this through the lens of my father's cigarette habit, which I so often fought against, and never completely understood.

Here's a bit of it:
My father smoked three, four, or sometimes more packs a day by the time I was old enough to understand the differences between addiction and social posturing. He once told me he had his first cigarette at 8 or 10, and was smoking regularly, openly, by age 12.  A boy smoking at 12 in 1938, in the Italian immigrant neighborhood where he’d grown up, was nothing shocking, not unexpected. Boys were regarded as young men by that age, already able – expected – to help their fathers with matters of earning money, doing heavy work, using their bodies as a wedge against poverty, homelessness, hunger.  Already, at 12, he was working alongside his father after school and on weekends. His father was a junk man, hauling broken down furnaces and other metals from residential basements or old factories, heaving them onto a wagon pulled by a horse.
When my father told me these stories, I tried to picture my elegant father, who liked to neatly turn up the bottoms of the sleeves of short sleeved shirts into a neat, crisp cuff, as a gangly adolescent in torn, dirty pants and too tight shoes and soiled, sweaty shirts, tried to picture the wagon, the horse (old and often lame, he said), the streets, the occasional motor car, housewives holding open their doors for the boy and his panting father, as they maneuvered out hulking, broken down and rusted radiators, boilers, utility sinks, pipes, the housewife pulling from her apron pocket a few pennies or a nickel for a tip, the boy taking puffs between stops.
You can read the whole piece here.