Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Editor Interview: Janna Marlies Maron on nonfiction, art, and publishing Under The Gum Tree

Sometimes I envy fiction writers and poets their riches in the literary journal jungle – the vast majority of journals (print and online) publish only, or mostly, fiction and poetry. Of those that do publish creative nonfiction, there is usually a low ratio of nonfiction to fiction/poetry. Until recently too, there were few journals that published only creative nonfiction. That's changing, and to my mind, one of the loveliest newer nonfiction-only entrants is Under The Gum Tree, which also features art alongside the prose, in both a print and digital format.

I am so excited to have my narrative essay, "Down at the Diner," included in UTGT's January 2014 issue. I'd admired the writing in the issues I'd already read (they've published 10 thus far); I was impressed by what a few of their published writers had said about the care shown by UTGT's editorial and production staff; and – not a small reason—I still love a printed product! I was also impressed by the exquisite art and visual design. So I asked publisher and editor Janna Marlies Maron if she would answer my questions about how she and her team make it shine. She not only said yes, but offered to gift a one-year digital subscription to one of my blog readers (see note at end).

Q.  As a nonfiction writer, I'm thrilled when a journal dedicates itself to nonfiction prose. And to have CNF featured alongside beautiful art is a special treat. What made you decide to focus the journal exclusively on these two forms of expression?

A. As a writer, my own work is in the creative nonfiction genre, so I’m partial. I also have a strong belief in the power of personal storytelling, and the “me too” experience that happens when writers share stories with an audience. There is something about the courage it takes to be vulnerable that creates a special and authentic connection between a storytellers and their audience.

In addition to my philosophy on personal storytelling, my professional background is in magazine publishing. So when I decided to start a literary magazine, one thing I knew from the outset is that it would be full-color and glossy in print, which is not something you usually see from literary journals. The decision to include art was largely based on that – if I was going to produce a full-color, glossy magazine, I wanted to make the most of that medium.

In my former role as a magazine editor, I longed to give a lot of space to photography, because full-page and full-spread photos are so stunning in print. But, when you work for a magazine driven by ad sales, you often have to make hard decisions about editorial space. So right away I knew I wanted to include a photo essay in every issue and that I would give as much room to it as I wanted!

We started including visual art sort of by accident. The art in the first several issues was all photography. Natana Prudhomme (who designed the logo and layout template and launched the magazine with me back in August 2011) is a painter, and I wanted to feature her work, which we did in the October 2012 issue, also our 1-year anniversary issue. Since then we have been featuring both photography and visual artists in each issue.

Q.  The animal artwork on the cover, the inside opening pages and ending pages, by Jane Garret Ryder is stunning – bold colors in a sea of stark white. And the arresting black-and-white photo essay in the center of the journal by Stephen Sheffield, seems to tell a story with words even though no words are present. Please tell me about choosing these artists/works, and how they complement the prose. 
Jane Garrett Ryder's work in UTGT
A. I have to credit Aimee Steffen Taber, the magazine’s designer with the artwork in this issue. Aimee is new to the UTGT team, taking over this issue from Natana.  Finding artists and photographers to feature has been one of the biggest challenges because, unlike writers who are often accustomed to submitting work if they want to get published, I don’t think the visual arts world really functions that way. So I have solicited most of the artwork we have published.

 When Aimee took over as artistic director, one thing I wanted to turn over to that position was curating the artwork and I think she’s done a superb job. Jane Garrett Ryder is someone that Aimee has worked with previously. 

The photo essay, however, came to us at the recommendation of Jason Landry, who runs an art gallery in Boston and whose photography is in Under the Gum Tree issue 9. 
Stephen Sheffield's work in UTGT

We aren’t necessarily looking for art that compliments the prose, rather we look for work that creates a visual story of some kind. If anything we are often keeping the visual elements of each issue in step with the seasons, which is partly why black and white photo essays were used in both the October 2013 and January 2014 issues – they convey a more mellow and contemplative mood that we often associate with the typical grayer and shorter days of winter.

Q.  I was struck by the diverse pieces in the January issue; such different, distinct voices, and yet it seemed this way to me, all were addressing some aspect of loss. I wonder if that was intentional or happened organically?

A. I love that you find diversity in this issue. The authors are—unintentionally—all female and, to be frank, as editor and publisher I’m constantly worrying about diversity: are we representing a spectrum of age, ethnicity, and gender?  But then the stories often speak for themselves, because I see diversity in experience even among writers who are the same gender or ethnicity.

We read and make decisions to accept or decline blindly. So to answer your question, it happens mostly organically. I say mostly only because there are times where, for example, we have accepted more than one piece about, say, dealing with mental illness, and we make the editorial decision to not publish both pieces in the same issue. The goal with those kinds of decisions is to create that diverse reading experience that you’re describing. 

Q.  As a writer and reader who grew up on print, I am in love with the slick, thick paper stock, the heft, the physicality of UTGT, the way the pages, weight, and texture all contribute to the reading experience (and how great my piece looks in it!). Since you also present the journal in digital form, what keeps you publishing the print edition (and oh, please don't ever stop!)? 

A. It’s interesting you ask about the print version because when I launched UTGT I thought for sure people would subscribe to the digital since it’s so much less costly (digital subscriptions are $2/mo, whereas print subscriptions are $7/mo). But I have found the opposite to be true–people love the print, and I think it has to do with the quality of our printing. We are, I hope, unlike many literary journals in that we do a full-color, glossy magazine–it’s really more like a coffee table book than a magazine.

What keeps me publishing print editions? Technology. Really, the only reason I publish in print is that there are tools allowing me to do it. I use a print-on-demand option, so the print edition is only printed for subscribers or when someone purchases an individual hard copy. I wouldn’t be able to do it otherwise.

Q.  Aside from the traditionally referenced recommendations about reading the journal before submitting and sending only your best, most polished work, have you any submission advice for writers that may be unique to a CNF-only journal?

A. First and foremost, follow submission guidelines to a T! We read blind, and say explicitly in our guidelines that submissions with any identifying information will be automatically declined, and I can’t tell you how many submissions we get with the author’s info right there in the text.

Beyond the logistical aspects of submitting, I believe that CNF is different from other genres in that there’s a personal impetus for the writer to share this particular story. We tell true stories to connect with others through shared experience and to help each other learn and grow. And we look for stories where that comes through in a subtle and skillfully crafted way. We don’t want to be hit over the head with a moral or a lesson learned, but we do want to know why it’s important that the author share this story with the world, and how that sharing will benefit the reader–even if it is in a very small way.

Note:  To win a one-year digital subscription to Under the Gum Tree, please leave a comment here on this post by midnight on Sunday, February 9 (and be sure we have a way to contact you). The winner will be announced here the next day.

Also:  If you are headed to the AWP conference in Seattle, stop by table #U15 and say hi to the UTGT folks!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, January 24, 2014 Edition

> Artis Henderson, author of The Unremarried Widow, has an excellent post on Marion Roach Smith's Memoir Project Blog, in the series Writing Lessons on  "How to Access the Details for Writing Memoir."

> If you manage an author (or publisher, bookstore, or other kind of) Facebook fan page, you will want to acquaint yourself with changing rules about which posts may get seen by the most fans/likes.

> Nate Tower may be on to something in his guest post on the Submittable blog, "Why Every Writer Should Work for a Literary Magazine."

> In the New York Times on Sunday, Merrill Markoe shares "How I Stopped Procrastinating." The remedy for her included broken bones, early rising, unplugging from the Internet, tapping into her not-quite-awake brain, being homebound, and banishing caffeine. Easy.

> At Beyond the Margins, Anne Bauer surveys, in a world when it's so easy (maybe too easy) to publish,"Who Are You Writing For?"

> This Tumblr might be fun, if you are looking for truly unusual writing prompts.

> I was pleased to see my blog on "The 100 Best Websites for Writers in 2014" over at The Write Life, and in such great company.

> Over at Savvy Authors, I chime in with other lit journal editors and submission readers on "Seven Reasons an Editor Might Reject Your Submission." 

> Finally, aside from being a very cool slide show, in which photographer Chino Otsuka inserts her adult self into photos from her childhood, "Imagine Finding Me," visually made me think about the need in memoir to be both the then-narrator and the now-author on the page. But you don't have to think about that. Just enjoy!

Have a great weekend!

Image: G&A Sattler/Flickr Creative Commons

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Poetry for Prose Writers -- Get Your Regular Dose

Until about 8 years ago, contemporary poetry seemed alien to me; in some vague way, I used to think either I was too unimaginative to understand it, or those who wrote it were uninterested in having anyone who is not also a modern poet comprehend its meaning.

Then I enrolled in an MFA program and that was the end of that. Even those in the creative nonfiction track like me were rubbing up against poets all the time. Eventually, I sat in on more than the polite number of poetry seminars. I discovered poetry that relies on the narrative line, prose poems, and – biggest head-thumping moment of all – that not only might I like to write some, but that a poem may be the best exercise of all for a prose writer. This came clear to me in a workshop my final week, led by a poet, with an even mix of nonfiction writers and poets around the table.

In the last five years, I've developed the habit of purposefully reading several new poems each week (I try for one each day but don't always manage it). Some stumble into my path, which is easy enough to understand: I now have many poet friends, whose work is regularly getting posted, published, praised, and passed around. I watch for new work by poets whose material I was first exposed to in the MFA program, and later via my expanding circle of (all kinds of) writing colleagues, and try to catch up on their older works too.

Like several mentors and workshop leaders I've studied under, when I began teaching and leading workshops, I adopted the ritual of beginning each session by reading a poem aloud. I ask those gathered (usually all prose writers) for a bit of forbearance, and to first simply listen as I read. Then, I pass around copies and ask someone else to read it aloud again. Sometimes we're lucky to have someone in the room who also writes poetry, and knows far more than I about the art of reading poetry aloud.

Then we talk about it – just for a few minutes. Whatever comes to mind. The language, word choices, images. Rhythm, intent, what's purposely left out. The lyricism, the music. How does it make you feel?

I'm not suggesting to the writers at the table that they write poetry, or mandating that they read more than this one poem each week. Aside from learning to appreciate another form of written art, mostly I do it because the writers who've gathered have typically just arrived from the busyness of their non-writing lives -- jobs, families, chores, traffic, noise, ice or heat or bad news on the car radio -- and I want to create a transition moment, a specific line where we cross from that over-stimulated, fast-spinning world into the land of words, language, art on the page.

I can tell that some folks only tolerate this 3-4 minute interlude; they want to get on to the real business at hand. That's okay. Because once in a while, something else happens, something terrific. Like the other night, in a Memoir & Personal Essay class, when we read Gretchen Marquette's poem,"Ode to a Man in Dress Clothes" (originally published in the Paris Review, though I discovered it republished in Harper's) which has an uncanny resemblance to creative nonfiction. 

After we'd read it twice and talked briefly about the images, the writer's possible invocation of memory; about tone, and how the second half of the poem differs dramatically from the first half in form, pace, and rhythm, one of the woman at the table smiled and reported: Wow. I used to think I didn't like poetry at all. I used to think it was so dense and odd. But I now I like it.

That is all.

Photo: torbakhopper/Flickr Creative Commons

Monday, January 20, 2014

Stuff My Writing Students Say, Part 17. On slow cooking and fast writing.

"I'll get that revision to you real soon."

Oh, please don't. 

What I mean is yes do the revision, but please not so soon. Take your time. And then, take a little more time.

There are a lot of reasons writers want to quickly attack a draft and move on to the next draft, especially if it's a piece of work for which they've just received feedback. We want to maintain momentum, get to the page while what we've just heard/read through is still fresh; maybe we're excited by new insights the feedback has ignited. We have a class deadline, or limited time to devote to writing, so why not push on?

What's the rush?

Time spent not working on the next version of a draft is a gift. What you want to do now is not write, but think. The kind of thinking that requires more than a few minutes, a few hours, or even one night's sleep.  More time than you may be inclined to spend before you combust with the torture of not digging in right away.

This is a hard lesson to learn, and I've learned it myself the hard way a few times before it really sunk in.

More time between drafts is not a quaint suggestion, a luxury, or a throwback to when it took more energy to revise (typewriters, Wite-Out, etc.). Though it may seem as if time away from your pages is cheating or sloth, it's the opposite. It's showing respect for the process. 

We need to let what we've learned -- from an editor, teacher, writing friend -- marinate, simmer, stew, brew (and any other cooking metaphors you might like to add here; the idea being, fast food never satisfies). Put that draft on the back burner. Let it brine. Use the crock pot instead of the pressure cooker.

Figure out what you'll do with what you've just heard back about your work. What editing suggestions make sense? What comments surprised you? Where are you challenged? Does any of the feedback leave you confused? Do you want to try some of the suggestions?  Are some best left alone? How will you fill that plot hole you overlooked? And do you want to shift the focus of the essay the way everyone seemed to agree would make it more interesting?

I don't think I've ever been unhappy with a decision to spend more time between revisions, to let a piece of work rest. And I understand the impulse to dig right in, especially when you are involved in a class or workshop setting:  You want, first of all, to prove that you are able and willing to take in feedback and, if it makes sense, to let it propel you to a better draft. You want to turn work around before the class sessions end so that the same peer reviewers and same instructor/workshop leader can weigh in again on the revised material.

As a teacher/workshop leader/writing coach, I DO want to see your revised work - but it doesn't have to be next week, or depending on the length of time we will have together, even the week after that. I much prefer that you live with it a while longer, contemplate your options, spend some time away from your draft.

What bad thing might happen if you put it aside for a bit?  Unless you are aiming to submit it for publication for which a deadline or seasonal consideration is involved, 
I can't think of anything.  

I can think of several positive things that might happen. You'll gain new perspective. Figure out several ways to solve a writing challenge. Have the time to try out new craft skills. 

And -- this may be the most important -- you'll have the time to make a mess. Time, and the privacy of not sharing your fast turn-around revision, to try something different, to experiment, and sometimes to realize it doesn't work, and then try something else; to add then delete; to scrap entire sentences, paragraphs, pages and see what happens.

Many times, I have returned a piece of work with extensive comments and suggestions that require deep thinking, and then the next morning, an email arrives with the revision attached. Perhaps the writer thinks I'll be impressed, and I might be if I were teaching a class on writing for a daily news site. But most of the time, we're talking about personal essays, short stories, memoir, novel chapters -- work that can only benefit from slow thought, and could be harmed by reckless speed.

I generally heave a sigh, and then sometimes I wait a few hours -- hopefully that's long enough for the writer to have second thoughts about how quickly he/she sent it back -- and then, before I even open the attachment, email to say, "Are you sure you don't want more time to work on this?"

And, what should you do while you're taking time between revisions?  While your writer's brain is both working and not-working on the problems in that piece? That's easy. Read. Write something else. Or, go fishing.

What's the rush?

Read the rest of the Stuff My Writing Students Say series

Photo: Christine Warner Hawks/Flickr Creative Commons

Friday, January 10, 2014

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers - January 10, 2014 Edition

Of interest around the web this week (or sometime)...

> I am especially pleased to see the new website The Saint's Marginalia, led by an essayist I admire, William Bradley. Its mission is to post detailed annotations on classic essays (like this one). And, there's a wiki too, so interested writers/analyzers can pitch in. 

> Traditionally-published fantasy novelist Jim Hines delivers his annual post outlining his entire writing income for last year, along with observations, explanations, caveats. Lively comments too.

> The Writer Beware blog has listed their top blog posts of 2013.

> Likewise, Writer's Digest catalogs their 62 top writing articles from last year.

> On January 28-30, LitCh@t, which runs the popular #LitChat discussions, will hold a Literary Salon on Twitter, featuring a large panel of authors.

> Best-selling novelist Jennifer Weiner wants a little literary respect, and explains why in a profile in The New Yorker by Rebecca Mead.

> Nina Badzin is another writer who gathers links of interest on her blog on occasional Fridays. 

> Dead Flowers, an online "poetry rag" from Bohemian Pupil Press is looking for a few good NON-poets to guest edit upcoming issues. "Indifferent to poetry"? You may be exactly right for the (labor of love) job.

> Finally, this is cool: got some (really) old books? There may be some "fore-edge painting" to discover.

Note: Need a little tough love to get you moving again as a writer, or help you keep your momentum? There are still spaces in my *I Should Be Writing!* Boot Camp which begins on Monday.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Writers, Photos, Fear, and Me: Getting Back in the Picture

Perhaps you already know that about 7 weeks ago, after avoiding it for seven years, I finally had a new photo taken for professional use (there it is, at left!). I told the story about how I got over my photo fear in my Thanksgiving newsletter, and mentioned it on Facebook

What happened next surprised, intrigued, and in some ways saddened me: within hours, more than 50 individual emails, and dozens of Facebook comments from other (mostly female) writers, all described feeling the same dread of posing for a new photo. Clearly, we all needed a reality check.

Then in December, SheWrites, the wonderful web community, invited me to share the story, which includes this excerpt: 
...Recently, when asked for photos to accompany essays from my memoir manuscript, about the relationship I formed with my father after he died, I persuaded each editor that something else would be more interesting--me and Dad on my wedding day; him holding me as a toddler; an image of Las Vegas (where he'd retired).   
But I was delaying the inevitable. A month ago, an editor of a print magazine insisted. She suggested I stand in front of a leafy tree and snap a selfie, and while that appealed to my budget (one son in college, another heading that way), I knew I needed help to get camera-ready, a village, and that costs. Photography sitting fee. Make-up artist. A decent  haircut, coloring, style. Then, paying for the actual images.  
Then there were the emotional costs: Age, more weight gain, a neglected appearance, and a bitterness that a writer's physical appearance mattered. That my story might be judged, maybe before the words are even read, based on the size of my chins, my age, the fleshy contour of my cheeks, the width of my nose, the wrinkles around and the bags under my eyes. What did any of that have to do with the words, story, with writing?   
But pictures do tell stories. And the one I joked I'd use until I was 90, suddenly struck me as telling the wrong story. That woman no longer exists, in ways that please and pain me... 
You can read the full post over at SheWrites. I'd love it if you would chime in, either here in comments, or over there, with your own thoughts on the subject. Are you getting in the picture?

Monday, January 6, 2014

May I Have a Word? Just One.

Like my poet friend Ruth Foley and her poet friend Molly Fisk, I choose a word for the year. I used to do it according to academic year, but then at the start of the 2013-14 school year, I just continued with my 2012-13 word until last week, and so I’m switching now to a word for the 2104 calendar year.

I tend to go with a word that will, at various times depending on what's happening with my writing life, alternately inspire, motivate, remind, encourage, gently scold, and otherwise work its magic on me. Sometimes I also have an accompanying mini-mantra, though not every year. Usually, they work together.

When my word was YES, the mantra was "I have everything I need." I wanted to say yes to every option, opportunity, resource available; and, I needed to remember that even without extra funds, the ability to travel, or connections, everything I needed to write was within my reach.

Another year, the word was Choose, and the mantra "You Can't Do Everything". Another time, the word was Decide, the mantra, "So What?" Here, "decide" wasn't about choosing between things, but deciding on something and then going ahead with it; and if it didn't work, so what? 

My just-expired word was Hope. When I first chose the word, I worried it might feel too mealy-mouthed, a bit too soft and vague for me, as if I was abdicating my own agency in the process of writing, submitting, publishing.

I was about to embark seriously on several new areas of my writing life, and needed something to quell the nerves and doubts banging around in my brain. I also needed to remind myself that just because I hadn't done these things before, and even though there were chances things might not work out, it was essential not only to work hard, learn, try, and persevere, it was also okay (and maybe even necessary) to hope.

As it turned out, many of the new ventures worked out quite well in the form of finding new teaching opportunities, getting more work published, developing a coaching/editing client base. Some haven't yet—finding a publishing home for the memoir manuscript is among the three goals I have been diligently chasing but which are still "in the works".

I have hope, still.

And now I have a new word for 2014, and a mini-mantra too. While I won't say what they are, I can vouch for the power of having them. Though there's no chance I'll forget them, I do write them in various places and tuck those notes where I'll come into contact with them at random times throughout the year. Reinforcement helps.

There are days when I think having such a word/mantra is a bit too touchy-feely, or that my word is silly or I'm silly for investing a word with any power. Then again, isn't that what we writers do, every day: believe in the power of words, the power of a single good word?

So here goes. Some days, stumbling across or remembering my word/mantra is like remembering that  $20 bill tucked in the bottom of my glove compartment just when I need gas and left the credit cards at home. Or finding, on a day when more than one rejection arrives, that Reese's Peanut Butter Cup from the Halloween stash still hidden in my desk drawer. 

Sometimes the word is chocolate.

Image: Marie Buyens/Flickr Creative Commons

Friday, January 3, 2014

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- January 3, 2014 Edition

Welcome to the first link round-up of the new year. 

> I've gotten plenty of writing (or at least, rough drafting) done in short bursts, so I'm pleased to see Elizabeth S. Craig's post, "Tips for Writing in Short Blocks of Time." 

> Nieman Storyboard does it again with this list of excellent links to important craft pieces about storytelling, narrative journalism, essaying, multimedia and digital narratives.

> If you've set some writing goals for the new year, consider drafting a writing buddy or accountability partner, as Veda Boyd Jones explains in the ASJA Word newsletter.

> But before you push aside last year's half-finished projects in favor of the shiny new promise of a blank page, consider Jordan Rosenfeld's advice: finish something.

> For those who are interested, one writer's step-by-step for submitting to the Huffington Post (not new, but useful).

> Finally for fun, over at BookRiot, "Sh%t Book Snobs Say" (hope I'm not guilty of any of these!), and the inimitable Betsy Lerner (agent, poet, author, editor) started a list of 10 things she hates, and commenters chimed in with about 100 more.

Have a great weekend!

Image: G&A Sattler/Flickr Creative Commons