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.