Wednesday, December 31, 2014

One More Year-End List for Writers: I Did It. Did You?

For the past couple of Decembers, I wrote here about what I call my *I Did It List,* and encouraged other writers to draw up one of their own before the year ends. While I did make my own list a few weeks ago, I haven't mentioned it here, yet. Actually, the blog's been unusually quiet since mid-November, as I grappled with the end of an unexpectedly busy teaching semester. 

But then  Erika Dreifus reminded me today about the importance of the list and why I feel so strongly that writers write one. So, with a few hours left to 2014, here goes.  
The idea, in brief, is that you sit down at the end of the year and list all the things you accomplished – big, small, significant, minor, planned, surprising: whatever you find worthy of patting yourself on the back about. Most of what goes on my list is related to writing and work that is tied to literary endeavors – publishing pieces I'm proud of in particular venues, teaching a new class, hitting income goals.
But occasionally more general things make the list, things that contribute to my writing/work life, or to my life, but aren't the kind that result directly in publication, assignments, jobs, or books: one year, I listing having remade my home office after 23 years; another, that I learned more about photography; this year, I listed that I read more for pleasure than usual and began touring colleges with my younger son. 

I've written before about why I think the process of making and thinking about this kind of a list  matters a lot more than scratching out the tired old writers' New Year's resolutions (Write more! X words per day! Get a book deal! Write every day! Quit procrastinating on Facebook!).  
And, I find it a lot more instructive, helpful, compassionate, and interesting than the self-recriminating lists many of us make (if only mentally) of all the things we had planned (resolved?) to do and did not get done, the list of letdowns, perceived failures, rejections, and false starts.
You can see some of my thoughts about why the *I Did It List* is important -- and what kinds of things you might considering putting on it, and why it's different than a list of goals -- here, here, here, and here
One of the caveats I put on myself (though you are welcome to ignore) is that I keep my full *I Did It List* private. I don't post it here or anywhere; it's for me, only. Sure, during the year, I've mentioned  things I'm proud to have accomplished on the blog, or posted on Facebook. But I like knowing, when I'm making the list, that it isn't for publication. The list, I believe, reads quite differently than if I knew others would be reading it. But make your own any way you like, and do with it what you want.

 The other "rule" I have is not to make the *I Did It List* some kind of accountability activity, holding it up against any list of goals I've made throughout the year. For me, it's not about whether or not I succeeded at X or Y, but about what I did.
Did I try something new? Learn something?   Say YES to something and have it work out? Make some interesting mistakes? Some of the best things on my list this year could not have ever appeared on any "to do" list, because they represent my taking a leap when an unexpected invitation, request, or prod was provided -- and having it turn out well, not-so-well, disastrously. But you know what, I did it!
Here's what I was thinking today: My *I Did It Lists* are beginning to represent for me, an answer of sorts to that wonderful Mary Oliver poem/question; it's what I've done, this year, with my one wild and precious life. As I'm making the list, I love remembering, then writing something down, and thinking, "Oh yeah, I did do that. Cool!" 

Before the new year starts, or in its early days, look back for just 15 minutes, and write your own *I Did It List.*  If you're like me, or dozens of others who have told me what the experience was like, I'm betting you'll find more on there than you imagined, and feel pretty darn good about it in the process.
Images: All Flickr Creative Commons.  Mary Oliver quote, Julie Gibbons; Red notebook, Alexander Levin; Woman in snow, Benjamin Staudinger; Happy man, Neal Fowler.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- November 21, 2014 Edition

> I love Katie Riegel's "Literary Magazine Wishes"over at The Gloria Sirens. Sample: "A human-sounding 'about' page. Pretentious = no. You don’t have to deride other branches of the literary world in order to do what you do."

> Via the New York Times' Learning Network: "500 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing". (Yes, 500. Neatly categorized. 500.)

> Perhaps a bit surprisingly, for someone who thinks of herself as something of a word nerd, and at the risk of seeming old or out of step, I had to look up the top three new words of the year named by the Oxford Dictionaries.

> It could be that this kind of word fun is more my speed: Popsonnet, where pop song lyrics (old and new) are rendered as Shakespearean sonnets.

> At the Writer Beware blog, a reminder of "How NOT to Register Copyright," including scams, fees, and the law.

> Ten major writing errors a manuscript editors sees often, and ways to avoid them.

> Caroline Leavitt details the complexities of literature and litigation involving several of her books' characters, both real and imagined.

> Finally, some odd punctuation marks.

I'm putting together my next newsletter. If you'd like to stay in touch, please use this to sign up (you'll get about four a year):
Newsletter Sign-Up

Have a great weekend!

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons - Roger Wollstadt

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Acceptance After (Multiple) Rejections: It Only Takes One Yes, One Editor, One

On Facebook a couple of weeks ago, a friend had something to say about acceptances and rejections – a good news/bad news post; not exactly an infrequent topic among writers toiling in the upside down world of literary submissions, occasional publication, and hope.  

This writer noted that she'd received a third place finish in a literary journal contest, from a publication near the top of her wish list -- after she'd already received 51 rejections from other journals, some of which she admitted she might have been less than enthusiastic about appearing in anyway.

I understood this too well. You begin with a small list of places you'd love your work to appear; a few might be a reach, but you're not insane, you don't over-reach and chuck every single thing you write at all the top tier publications. You build a list that makes sense, but still represents places you'd be humbled and honored to get an acceptance from. Then you wait. Rejections arrive. You add to your list, this time dipping further down the coveted top tier. More rejections come your way. The list grows, and submissions go out, again.  

But once you reach double digit rejections, you begin to doubt a piece's substance and chances and adjust your submission list yet again, scanning a bit lower. You still keep sending to those near the top of your list but you're realistic and send to second and third tier places too.

Then the acceptance comes from a venue near the top, one you had submitted to with hope but also pragmatism, and you wonder once again: Were all those other editors wrong? Is it a matter of taste? Was Mom right (about jobs, spouses, everything), that it only takes one, and sooner or later it will happen?

Sometimes, I think so.

When I saw that writer's post, it was just one day after I'd received an acceptance for a nonfiction narrative essay from a journal I consider desirable (at least to my own idiosyncratic, individual system of ranking)—after having received, over the previous year of submissions, rejections from 26 other publications, a mix of those less stellar, more stellar, and roughly equal to the one that said yes.

Go figure.

After virtually high-fiving that other writer, I got curious. I pulled up my Excel spreadsheet that I use to track submitting activity and did a quick, calculator-less analysis. Just how often did this happen, I wanted to know? How often does it take hearing a lot of No, before I hear Yes? I had a sense that the answer was, pretty often. But suddenly I wanted proof, numbers, stats.

Not only was I curious in light of that writer's post and my own almost simultaneous experience, but I wanted to know because I am known to encourage fellow writers thus: "Don't be discouraged, keep sending it out, this is how it works." Was I right? And how often? So I pulled up my personal Excel spreadsheet stats, along with my Duotrope tracker.

Here's what I found: Over the past 18 months or so, I had submitted 15 different pieces of creative nonfiction (all kinds of essays and nonfiction narrative), to a total of 47 different venues (a mix of print and online literary journals and mainstream media markets that publish CNF). That amounted to 116 total individual submissions, resulting in: 10 acceptances, 19 personal rejections, 52 form rejections, 21 withdrawals by me, and 14 never-heard-back-might-as-well-have-pitched-it-into-the-ocean. [Not included in this count are submissions associated with the book-length memoir manuscript, my smattering of poetry subs, and other hard-to-classify stuff.]

I'm neither surprised nor upset by these stats. (Not as upset as this poet who describes a sometimes zero-sum game of poetry chapbook/contest submissions.) Duotrope, for example, tells me (not that I asked, but there is it displayed on my Submission Tracker page): Your acceptance rate is higher than average. Okay, then. Then again, Duotrope doesn't know the whole picture, only the journals I've submitted to which are in their database. Still, I'll take the praise/encouragement, as there's precious little of it around.

In a very odd sense, I have come to the idea that the only way to stay in this particular system is to think of the submitting-rejection-submitting-acceptance game as just that, a game. Do I hope to "win"? Sure, whatever that means. Publication? Certainly. More frequent, reliable acceptances? I hope so. CV-building? Yes, that's necessary after all. Platform building? Meh. And also, colleague-making, affirmation, participation, a dollop of validation!

But unlike the Scrabble, gin rummy, and shouting-at-the-TV Jeopardy games I play frequently (and rather expect to actually win), I have to think of the submitting game the way I do the tennis, shuffleboard, and other outdoor games I play with my competitive husband and strong teenage sons while on vacation: nice (though rare) if I win, enjoyable (mostly) when I tie or lose by a little, and fun enough (usually) that I will play again the next day. I  know that while every game is about skill, I'm always aware there are other dominant players on the field and that field is not always precisely level. My son's legs will always hold up better than mine, my husband's killer instinct will forever surpass mine. But they forget: they're playing against someone who, on a daily basis, often before breakfast, sloughs off rejection, has learned to study but then ignore the competition, and who knows, perhaps even enjoys, the underdog position.

They're dealing with a writer who, at the present moment, has five different pieces of work in the submission pipeline, awaiting their fate at 25 different venues. And I haven't even checked my email yet today.

Game (still) on.

Images: All Flickr/Creative Commons -- Cookies: Stallio; Yes and No: Abhi; Rejected: Sean MacEntee.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Of Print, Pixels, and Publication

I've gotten used to posting a link when something I've written has found its way to publication; even when a piece appears in a print journal, there's often an online version too. But not always. Since I'm a writer-who-came-of-age-in-the-time-of-typewriters, there's a part of me that finds a print-only publication quite satisfying. But since I'm also a writer-who-has-adapted-and-loves-the-online-world, it also feels a bit odd.

"The Nurse We Needed" is a piece of flash nonfiction excerpted from my memoir manuscript, and appears in the Fall 2014 issue of The Healing Muse (volume 14). When the package arrived with my two contributor copies, I had a sense of nostalgia…postal mail, the printed word, the glossy cover, the discovery of fanning through the pages, the small thrill of flipping back and forth from table of contents to contributor bios to individual random pieces of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and artwork.

Okay, enough nostalgia. I'll admit too, there was a smidge of disappointment that I couldn't oh-so-easily put up a link to my work. But that soon passed.

Then I was on to my usual habit—scanning to see if any writers I know and/or admire also have work included. I don't know why this makes me so happy when it happens. It's not about validation (okay, that's a lie, if I found myself in the same journal or anthology as, say, Joan Didion…) so much as knowing I'm in this literary world together with other kindred souls.

Immediately, I found two brilliant, linked pieces of  micro flash nonfiction by Rita Ciresi, a colleague and fellow MFA faculty member. I also recognized several other names in the nonfiction listings, and a smattering of those in the poetry section as well. Next, I read randomly from all over the journal, and admired some of the visual art, too.

The Healing Muse is produced by the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the Upstate (NY) Medical University, with a focus on work about illness, health, loss, the body, hospitals, healthcare, grief, sickness, care giving, medical workers, and other related topics. There is plenty of good work in this issue, representing so much rich experience. 

Editor-in-chief Deidre Neilen wrote in her Editor's Note, "Here is another paradox: the journal feels so light in my hands, yet it contains the weight of complex histories and the impossible questions they provoke."

My piece feels that way, at least for me: it's about what little I know actually happened, what I surely can never know, and what I imagine might have happened between my father and the hospice nurse who saw him only once, and very shortly before he died, alone.

Three weeks ago, I had made plans to participate in a reading and 14th anniversary celebration on the Upstate Medical campus, adjacent to my undergraduate alma mater, Syracuse University; it seemed an ideal quick road-trip getaway. But the universe laughed, my plans folded, and so now that I can't post a photo from the event, and instead of a link to my work, here's the page where you can buy a copy of the Fall 2014 issue of The Healing Muse ($10). Or maybe you have a piece of work you'd like to submit.

I'd also like to give one blog reader a copy of the Fall issue. Just leave a comment by midnight on Tuesday, November 24 (must have U.S. postal address and a trackback web contact).

Monday, November 10, 2014

Writing Ideas, Interruptions, and Sometimes, a Storm of Inspiration

Where do writing ideas originate? In our minds? Our hearts? A little of both, surely. Do they come along in a flash, or simmer for some time? In my experience, both. But some arrive with a powerful, abrupt interruption to life as usual. And then hold on, refusing to be shaken loose.   

About 10 days ago, folks here in New Jersey marked two years since Hurricane Superstorm Sandy slammed into our coastline, then worked its way north through the state to where I've lived most of my life. BAM, regular life was interrupted. Like many writers, I wrote about it, not once but several times.

First, even before the winds howled, an essay poured out of me about what it was like to be huddled in my home with my husband and one son, while another son was away at his first year of college. Though geographically safer from the storm, he was actually wishing he had been home (a meteorology major, one of those odd people who like bad weather); and that stirred up powerful emotions.

 About two weeks later, I wrote a different piece for the blog of a regional writing center where I was just about to begin teaching. That essay focused on the way people in my state were still talking about the storm in ways that seemed clear we were actually talking about a lot more than the storm--and how, in personal essay and memoir, we often *talk* about one thing while telling the real story about something else.

Next came an invitation to contribute a guest post to the popular blog of a friend from high school. This one, in keeping with her blog's theme of empowerment, focused on how the storm had forced me to look at my relationship to being flexible and adaptable.

Finally, a few weeks after that, when I'd had a chance to consider what the Jersey Shore – an ever popular vacation haven for most Garden State residents, but alas, not for me—meant to me now that it was ruined. This piece, like many of the layered and slightly more lyrical pieces I love to work on, took me places I hadn't anticipated--from childhood longing to newly married compromise, young motherhood to middle age, and finally, to facing a parent's decline, when bad news once reached me while on a rare Jersey Shore visit.

Noting the anniversary has put me in mind of how pieces begin, grow, and then are linked, not only in obvious ways, but sometimes less clearly; how (if we're lucky) one piece of work leads to another; why we can't rule anything out. It made me again consider how what we think we are going to write is sometimes usurped by what feels most urgent to write. And it reminded me to appreciate that squirrelly, unreliable, and gratefully welcome thing we might call inspiration.

Had you asked me in mid-October 2012 what I was planning to write over the next month, I surely would not have said four essays that relate to weather and the Jersey Shore (and more). Even when the storm was making landfall -- I was working then as an editor for a regional news site, frantically gathering and posting storm preparedness tips; interviewing health, power company, and local government officials; and texting my son to interpret the weather updates -- I still hadn't planned to write anything personal about the storm.

Then, the storm was upon us, and my fingers began to move over the keyboard. The first essay felt like I'd said everything I needed to say. Until the next essay asserted itself. After that one, I felt finished.

And then…well, you know; you're a writer too.

Over the next few months, my family will spend our first Thanksgiving in our hometown in about 20 years…my elder son will turn 21 and my husband's niece will marry (on the same day)…my younger son will take the SATs…my family will attend a concert we've been looking forward to for six months (hint: we'll be in a New York state of mind)…and who knows what else might happen, what unexpected events, large or small, hopefully not tragic, will occur. I don't plan to write about any of it.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- November 7, 2014 Edition

If you're new here, this is the deal: on (many) Fridays, I dish up links I've stored lately. The post is named after the way I like to feed my family at the end of the week--by getting all those leftovers out of the fridge. Enjoy!

> Not an outliner, planner, or particularly organized writer? Patrick Madden too is "Against Getting It All Down."

> Tired of arguing about the Oxford comma or single spaces after periods? Consider the single quotation mark. Or, please don't.

> When a former This American Life producer starts producing podcasts, better find your earbuds. I've heard Serial is seriously good.

> Nonfiction writers must not miss this Review Review roundtable with editors from Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Hippocampus, and River Teeth.

> Then, broaden your range with The Write Life's list of 19 places to send personal essays (and most pay).

> Definitions and examples of every literary device you probably recognize but cannot name.

> Have you discovered the "My First Time" guest posts at The Quivering Pen? This recent installment, by Wendy J. Fox, covering self-imposed deadlines, post-MFA life, and perseverance, rang some bells for me.

> I love this "color thesaurus" at Ingrid Sundberg's blog -- Pantone meets Roget's meets paint chips. 

> Hasn't every writer -- and maybe poets in particular -- who has ever submitted anything anywhere gotten the no-more-I-quit blues?

But if you're not so jaded, and lucky enough to get an offer of publication, then check out these tips for working with a small independent press.

> Finally, have you seen, and tired of, all the possible turns of phrase for the new social network Ello? No? Here you go. And, a
re your Tweets are Reader's Digest-ible? You may get paid a whopping $25 thanks to this guy.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Why Thank You is the Creative Nonfiction Writer's All-Purpose Response to Critics and Admirers Alike

Last week, a few students in a nonfiction class I teach for Bay Path University, were discussing handling fallout, mainly from relatives and close friends who read personal essays and memoir, and aren't too happy about what they find on the page. And aren't shy about telling the writer so.
This put me in mind of the elegant way one guest writer at my own MFA program once advised responding.
At first I thought it sounded too glib, but I can assure you that after putting it into practice, it holds up. 
Here it is: The only possible response to any feedback / criticism/ judgment / complaints is to reply:  "Thank you."   
That is all.
This will more or less confound and halt the critics, who expect you to engage in a defensive debate or to be contrite, and who likely have a bunch of arguments lined up ready to unleash on you. Mostly, they will instead stay silent (fuming maybe); or they might spew the negativity anyway; and if they do, you can again simply reply, "Thank you." Or perhaps Thanks, I appreciate your reading it. or Thanks for sharing your reaction. or Thanks for the feedback.
As for those who heap praise on the work, the answer too is also simply, "Thank you." 
That is all. 
That's not all. This is also a good response for those who are in the other camp, who want to tell you how much they agree with what you wrote, about how you got it so right, how well you portrayed them on the page. But again, that is their conversation, not yours. A simple, heartfelt "Thank you" is enough; or Thanks, I appreciate your reading it. Or Thanks for sharing your reaction. or Thanks for the feedback.
I don't mean to suggest that we ignore what others have to say, that we dismiss the negative and neglect to appreciate the positive, that we make our friends and loved ones feel as if we don't care about their feelings. Listening is healthy, and often the loving and respectful thing to do; but caring about others' feelings is different than worrying about their opinions about our literary work. 
The only thing that makes "thank you" work is that we writers must mean it when we say it. We must truly be appreciative that someone we care about has bothered to read our work, and wishes to express an opinion. We need to actually be thankful for both the claps on the back and the slaps on the wrist.
Seems counter-intuitive. Until you try it.
Images: Flickr Creative Commons - top, Steven DePolo; Bottom: Katharina Friederike

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Reading, A Writer in the Family (no, two), A Coincidence (or not)

I'm a hugely pragmatic person. Planning, facing reality, hard work--these are my guideposts. Write, revise, rewrite, submit, submit, toss rejections aside, learn from it all, repeat.

But once in a while, I'm reminded of something my father often said: "Dream a little."

My father has been gone for eight years. Friday, October 17, is his birthday, and he would have been 88 years old. In a striking coincidence, I'll be reading from my manuscript on that day, essays about the relationship that developed between the two of us after he died.  

The event is part of Live Literature, at Montclair State University, where I'm lucky to be teaching this semester. A fiction writer will also read, and then we'll both be taking questions from the audience – students from many writing classes, other members of the campus community, and perhaps alumni gathered there for Homecoming weekend.

When I was invited to read that day, I cringed a little at the timing, then recognized the opportunity for what it was: confirmation, not coincidence. Affirmation, not accidental. And, okay, maybe I'm choosing to see synergy where there's only a planning perk. Maybe I'm just lucky.

All his life, my father, forced to quit high school in tenth grade to help support his parents and siblings, longed for more education. Seeing both his daughters graduate from college gladdened him. A frustrated writer, he squirreled away short stories and poems. He read always, and every morning when I reach for the newspaper, every night when I reach for a book, I think of him, teaching himself about the world, one book, one newspaper, one article, one word at a time.

My father, who loved Las Vegas and eventually retired there, believed his birth date, 17, was lucky. He always inked that number when playing keno and tossed a chip on it when at the roulette table, frequently winning. He lost a lot too. When he was assigned a hotel room with both a 1 and a 7 in it, he assured everyone that it would be a good room, a great vacation. And if at first it wasn't, he made it so.

The words about my father started spilling from my pen less than 18 hours after he died, on an airplane pushing west from New Jersey to Vegas; I didn't stop for almost five years, not until a memoir-in-essays emerged. 

Like a lot of writers, when I began seeking traditional book publication, I started a spreadsheet tracking my progress through the rounds of submission to small literary publishers and university presses. There have been a few terse No's, some This-is-lovely-but-not-quite-lovely-enough No's, and a few in-between No's. That's okay. I'm pragmatic that way. Learn from the rejections, then toss them aside, submit, submit.

As of this morning, I have queries out to 15 presses, and two additional publishers have requested, and are now reading, the full manuscript. I'm not sure what a Vegas odds maker would have to say about those numbers. But to me, that's 17 possibilities. Lucky? We'll see.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Guest Blogger Nancy M. Williams on How Claiming Her Passion Transformed Her Writing Career

I quit piano lessons at age 15, after my teacher firmly recommended it to my parents. I went on to my real passion – riding horses. So it may seem odd that, when a member of my former writing group needed input on a long essay about her love of the piano, I'd tackle it. But I loved offering Nancy M. Williams feedback on that piece, as she'd done for me so many times on essays I was working on at the time.
Nancy has a stunningly long and impressive list of accomplishments, including a Harvard MBA, and normally I'd list some of them here, especially the writing-related highlights. But in this case, many of them unfold right in her guest post.

Please welcome Nancy M. Williams. 
When I present my workshop, "Claiming Your Passion," I often cringe when I mention once having a filing cabinet drawer stuffed full of personal essays that I could not work up the courage to submit. This is the point of my story at which my husband and I needed a second income and my giddy decision four years before to leave my career in telecom marketing, looked impulsive. I knew the twenty or so essays gathering dust would not make a meaningful contribution to the mortgage, and realized I should have been submitting my work all along. At that moment, I felt as though in my desire to become a writer, I had failed.

Perhaps you already sense that my tale has a happy ending, that I faced my fear of allowing editors to evaluate my work. I did summon the courage to submit, but only after I reclaimed my seat at the piano. Reclaiming my passion for the piano in my early forties helped me to move forward as a writer.

I define a passion as an activity that you do naturally and with great interest, quite simply an activity that you love. As long as your passion fits that definition, it can be absolutely any activity, from acting to zip-lining. Your passions are distinct from your talents, education, acquired job skills, and profession, although sometimes they overlap. The key is that participating in your passions helps to center you and access your deepest self.

Many of you have already identified your deepest passion as writing. For others – including myself – our passions lie in several places, and it's only by granting both full reign that we can move ahead. I hope my story helps you deepen your relationship with your creative writing life and perhaps also pursue any neglected passions that could fuel your writing.

Back to Work, Back to the Piano

Back to my story: faced with a need to make money, I dove back into my former career of telecom marketing, securing a job as a marketing director at a cell-phone start-up. Yet I often felt impatient in meetings, and noticed I drummed my index and middle fingers on the conference table, as though playing a trill on the piano keyboard. 

I hadn’t touched the piano in 25 years, not since the summer of my sixteenth birthday. As a child and teenager, I often felt bliss when practicing, and at 16  performed a Rachmaninoff prelude in recital. Yet that summer my parents’ marital problems and financial pressures forced me to quit the piano.  Over the next 25 years, memories of losing the piano haunted me.

At the cell phone company, two years slipped by while I played silent trills on the conference table. Then my husband enrolled with our five-year-old in father-son piano lessons. That action was a trigger point of transformation for me. Once the Yamaha upright we had purchased for their practice arrived at our home, I enrolled in adult piano lessons at our local university.

Every night, after my children fell asleep, I practiced for at least an hour, rekindling the old feelings of my adolescence on the bench: sometimes a wild joy, other times a certain naturalness and ease, almost always a feeling of belonging. My teacher assigned me Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude. The opening melody was ruminative, almost rapt, while underneath the melody, in the keyboard’s tenor section, an A-flat pulsed, consistent and unerring: the sound of raindrops pinging.

With my ego concentrated on the rigor of learning the notes to the “Raindrop”, I could hear my inner voice speaking, and it was pointing out the mismatch between my dream to be a writer and my day job.  One night while I was on the piano bench, my inner self worked around to the sore point of those completed essays waiting patiently in my filing cabinet. Surely I should send out a few for publication? Six months into my piano lessons, my hands shaking, I submitted first one essay, and then another, to different magazines, unwinding the first few threads from my tightly spooled fear.

I received my first acceptance nine months later, the email arriving during the morning at work, where I had arrived at six a.m., to write before the business day hit full throttle. Fit Pregnancy would publish a piece about how swimming helped me cope with the anxiety I experienced during my first pregnancy. I jumped up from my desk and paced the office, overcome with excitement.

From the Piano, to Writing, to Submitting

The act of submitting, and the affirmation from the acceptance, encouraged me to write new material. Subject matter was a given: with the piano as my nightly companion, to write about anything else, save my husband and children, seemed pointless. After six drafts and three rounds of input from my writing group (three other women including Lisa), I finished an essay, "Deserting the Piano," which I felt that perhaps, maybe, I really should submit. My writing group advised me to send the manuscript to 10 literary journals at a time, as long as they permitted simultaneous submissions, and not to consider stopping until I had at least 50 rejections. This advice served as a permission of sorts, and as further encouragement, I created an Excel spreadsheet to track my progress.  By this time, my husband’s business had flourished, allowing me to quit my cell-phone company job.

When I received a call from the editor of The Chattahoochee Review, who informed me I had won the journal’s 2009 Lamar York Nonfiction Prize, I screamed out loud. Suavity was clearly missing in my response!  I also placed in the Missouri Review’s audio competition with my personal essay cum piano recording called "Reverie Reclaimed."

I had first learned and performed the Reverie in recital when I was 13. High notes chimed the melody, while accompanying arpeggios swirled in the bass.  Now, three decades and some later, after relearning and writing about this mellifluous music, I wanted to share it with others.

From Writing Success to Piano Performance

I auditioned for a Manhattan piano society, a group of committed amateur pianists who performed in public concerts. For my first performance, when I played the Reverie, my hands and legs shook, I repeated the opening section once too many times, and I tripped over some wrong notes. Yet afterwards, I was warmed by members of the audience who approached me with shining eyes; one elderly woman gripped my arm. “That was beautiful,” she said. I realized that perhaps my piano teacher’s feedback that I was musical was true.

The performances I had given had been marred with imperfection, yet I had participated in the concert (the equivalent, I realized, of submitting and sometimes being published and sometimes being rejected in the writing world). When I practiced at my piano in the months that followed, my inner voice spoke again: I now had a respectable list of publication credits, but I took too long to write each essay. I wondered if I was doing that by design. After all, the less work I produced, the fewer pieces I would have to submit, minimizing the number of rejections I would receive. My ego was still in control, protecting itself with a shield of perfectionism.

I needed another outlet for my writing, one that would push me to produce.

Heeding the Blogging Call

In the summer of 2011, I launched a weekly blog, focused on engaging with the piano as an adult. Part of me was terrified. I had spent a year on my two award-winning essays;  what would happen to the quality of my writing when I was forced to publish every week?  

To my surprise, I felt energized interviewing adults who took piano lessons, penning personal essays with practice tips, and reviewing novels, memoirs, and nonfiction books that involved the piano. Although I tried to write and schedule blog posts a month ahead, many a Sunday night, with only hours before my self-imposed 5 a.m. Monday publication time, I was still at the computer, finishing my article for the week.  Often I was forced to publish a piece I considered less than perfect. In an irony I had not foreseen, sometimes the essays I had written most quickly garnered the most readership and engagement.  

I realized how essential it was for me as a writer, really as a human being, to engage with others and to receive feedback about my work.  As a result of the blog, I received several paid writing assignments, including an unsolicited commission from the beauty website Aesop, a profile for a Bach-themed issue

Today my blog has expanded into an online magazine called Grand Piano Passion.

This pattern continued, each milestone in my pursuit of my passion for the piano helping me to overcome my fear of submitting, pulling me back to my passion for writing.  Seated at the piano bench, engaged in my passion for the music, I could hear that wise, inner part of myself urging me on, building my courage in both arenas.

 Eventually, I took a master class on performance, culminating in a recital at Carnegie Hall. The following year, I took my story about how reclaiming my passion for the piano had turbocharged my writing life, and developed a workshop, “Claiming Your Passion,” which I now present at various speaking engagements.

The Piano "Cure" ? 

Am I completely cured of my fear of submitting? I’m afraid not. My condition is no longer acute, yet it’s still present, low-grade and chronic, threatening to grow into paralysis if I let it.  Yet I have my passion for the piano to protect me. The piano, which I imagine in some ways as a separate person, a guardian angel that divines my deepest desires, will be there to take me by the hand.   

During my workshop, the chill I experience describing that file drawer of essays gathering dust dissolves into exuberance as my presentation draws to a close. When I declare to my audience that Every Person Has a Passion™, whether sailing, reading, stamp-collecting, watching movies, volunteering at an animal shelter – I emphasize that this passion can play a transformative role in the rest of their lives. For me, my piano passion reignited my writing life. 

Not all writers are afflicted with the fear of submitting (although it’s certainly common), but all writers face challenges. Getting in touch with your other passion, and taking the time to pursue it, even if only for 20 minutes a day, may center you, helping your writing career bloom in satisfying and sometimes unexpected ways.  

Note from Lisa:  For a terrific article about Nancy, check out the Urban Gardner column in the Wall Street Journal; and be sure to visit Nancy's website and Grand Piano PassionTM.. You can also follow her on Twitter.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Guest Blogger C. Hope Clark on Why Writing What You Know Doesn’t Mean You Know How to Write

Like many writers, I imagine, I get several newsletters intended to help me write and market work. Some I barely read. Others I keep in a separate, long term file on my computer. I may not read them the day they arrive, but these are the ones I want on hand, and comb them for opportunities and insight. C. Hope Clark's Funds for Writers is one of these. I've found many excellent tips in her pages, and she's impressed me as one of the most sincere, generous, and supportive folks in the writing world.
This week, Hope's newest novel, Murder on Edisto (Bell Bridge Books) debuts, joining her previous series, the Carolina Slade Mysteries. It's set in Edisto Beach, South Carolina, a place she considers her second home.  Hope is still editor of FundsforWriters, which has a seemingly perennial place on Writer’s Digest Books' 101 Best Websites for Writers. Her newsletters reach 40,000 readers.

Please welcome C. Hope Clark

When I worked for the federal government, I was once offered a bribe. As required, I called in the badges and guns, and the agents roped me into the investigation as the Cooperating Individual (CI).  Yet even after the hidden recorders, cameras, and memorized scripts, we never charged the guy since he could not produce the money. However, as the case dragged on, I became friends with one of the agents. Once the case was shelved, we dated. A couple years later, we married. Okay. Go ahead and say it. “Awww, what a great story! You ought to write a book.” Heck, why not, right?
Eight years later, frustrated at my federal job and eager to write seriously, I thought, “Why not give that novel a try?” With a politician boss, I’d spun words for years. If I could write government fiction, how hard could it be to write mystery fiction? Especially when the story was grounded in my own real-life case.

            As it turned out, harder than I thought. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

            After two years, I finished a manuscript. My mother was friends with Fern Michaels (yes, THAT Fern Michaels, the 50-time New York Times best-selling author with a kajillion copies of mysteries and thrillers in print). Fern offered to pass the manuscript on to an agent, which I later recognized was probably a polite gesture directed at my mother. The agent wrote back with a polite refusal. I still have the note Fern sent afterwards, commending me on completing the novel, and how I ought to be proud at that achievement in itself.


            Throwing the hard-copy manuscript on a closet shelf, I redirected myself to commercial nonfiction, to better use my natural left brain talents. Over the next four years, my efforts turned into clips, with freelance articles in both Writer’s Digest and The Writer Magazine, and eventually I founded the newsletter, FundsforWriters, in which I used my government knowledge to define myself.  Then a local bookstore owner asked me to pick up a mystery author from her hotel and bring her to a book signing at the shop.

I was gobsmacked, meeting someone who’d accomplished what I’d once dreamed of;  as was the waiter who stumbled all over himself asking for her autograph on his copy of her latest that he’d run down and purchased between our main course and dessert. Then once the doting subsided, the author asked what I wrote. I told her of my freelance work.

“No,” she said. “What do you write for you?”

“Oh,” I replied, a bit red-faced. “I once wrote this mystery. But it didn’t go anywhere.”

She stared at me with an all-knowing smile. “Pull it out,” she said. “Otherwise in ten or twenty years you’ll kick yourself for not giving it another try.”

So I went home that evening and gingerly retrieved the manuscript box. I was struck dumb on the first page. “Oh my God, this sucks!”

The story was still decent, but it seems that after four years of freelancing, I’d learned to recognize marginal writing.

Re-energized, I saved the outline and tossed the manuscript, toiling long and hard with rewrites, contest entries, and agent and publisher queries. After two years, the effort paid off. I’ve published four mysteries now, but Lowcountry Bribe (Bell Bridge Books, 2012)  will remain near and dear to me forever. The book everyone said I ought to write, had finally been written.

I recall my first reading at a conference, when Lowcountry Bribe was two months’ published. Four of us read: a young adult author, a poet, and a literary review editor, and I went last. Heart hammering, I selected a scene where the bribe was offered, and the protagonist comes face to face with the antagonist, each reading the other’s mind about what their back and forth innuendo really meant: a crooked deal.

Halfway through, I sensed the room go silent, people standing still around the hors d’ oeuvres table. But I read on, nervous. Finally, hands still white-knuckled on the book, I finished. The room erupted in applause.

The literary review editor approached me as I stepped down from the stage. “That was excellent,” he said.

Still jittery, I smiled and thanked him. “This is my first published fiction,” I said, clutching my book. “I’ve always written commercially.”

He shook his head with a grin. “Doesn’t matter what you’ve written,” he said. “You’ve put in the time, and it shows in your work. That was good.”
           Tears filled my eyes as he turned away. The years in between my first and second manuscripts, while I hadn’t written mysteries, I had indeed kept writing. And unexpectedly I’d grown in the process, every word a step up the ladder.

Writing what you know is important, but it’s only a piece of the puzzle. Knowing how to write it means so much more, and sometimes that only comes with putting one word in front of the other. To this day, I write every day to oil the machine, because when the next great idea comes along, I want to be primed, warmed up, and ready to go.

Note from Lisa: Hope will be stopping by the blog for several days to answer questions via comments. She's also giving away a signed copy of any one of her books (including Murder on Edisto) to one random blog reader; leave your comment before midnight on Saturday, October 11.

Connect with Hope on Facebook and Twitter.