Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Jersey Day in May: Announcing - The Art of Short Nonfiction Prose. Write with me!

I know it's just a trick of the senses, that the unseasonably warm weather in northern New Jersey the past few weeks is lulling me into the false idea that spring is already underway. Which leaves me eager to traverse the intervening weeks to arrive at May 6, when no matter what, spring will be firmly in bloom in the Garden State.

I'm very happy to announce that I'll be leading a full-day writing event in Bedminster, NJ, on Saturday, May 6 -- The Art of Short Nonfiction Prose. Everything about the day has been thoughtfully arranged for an intimate, challenging, supportive, and edifying experience. 

We'll be welcoming about 10 to 12 writers, who will come together to explore ideas, generate new work, share, learn, and in short (!), dive deeply into the craft of writing short nonfiction. Short, in this context, will include the newer forms of mini-, micro-, and flash essays (from 50 to 750 words), as well as more traditional "short" pieces that are more than flash but less than long-form.

The Art of Short Nonfiction Prose will take place in a lovely countryside setting, and it's sponsored by Tiferet Journal. Tiferet (tagline: Promoting tolerance through literature and art) was founded and is published by Donna Baier Stein, my teaching colleague in other endeavors, and a champion of literary work that has meaning.

I'll be assisted by Ryder Ziebarth, who is a former student/mentee of mine, a graduate of the Vermont Center for Fine Arts MFA program, and a Tiferet associate editor. In fact, Ryder is hosting the event at Cedar Ridge Farm, which goes back generations in her family and is listed with the Smithsonian Institute of American Gardens. In addition to her expertise at nonfiction, Ryder is a dedicated steward of the land, and an accomplished cook (who's planning to serve a healthy farm-to-table lunch!).

I've spent time at her farm, and I'm certain that the gracious farmhouse, welcoming guest cottage, and spacious grounds, along with the lush gardens, and rolling hay fields will be a perfect backdrop. It's a place for deep thought, quiet contemplation, relaxed conversation and also the kind of spirited camaraderie that so often springs up between writers brought together for common purpose.

If you're within driving distance, and you have a desire to dwell for a full day in the possibilities that short nonfiction allows, and do so alongside other like-minded writers, then I invite you to check out this unique event. (Enrollment is limited. I'd be happy to answer any questions, here or via email.)

As March approaches, and who knows what its winds may bring, I'll enjoy knowing that spring will arrive, and with it, this special day.

Images: courtesy Ryder Ziebarth

Friday, February 17, 2017

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- February 17, 2017 (and more Post-#AWP17) Edition

There's a lot in the fridge this week...

> At the Masters Review blog, check out the Literary Terms Library.

> If you tweet, you may already know that on Twitter, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary feed (@MerriamWebster) is on fire. Vox recently featured the voice behind the tweets. More broadly, the New York Times reports that internet searches have dramatically increased all dictionary sites.

>The Write Life's "100 Best Websites for Writers in 2017" is available, and while 
this blog is not on the list this time around (breaking our 3-year run), you can be sure I'll be scouring it for new or unknown-to-me resources.

For those who want more post-AWP coverage, check my post from yesterday, and then try some or all of these: 

>Bethanne Patrick at Roar with "Some Feminist Observations from the AWP Conference.

> Kim Liao traces her growth as a writer via "In Search of Lost Swag: My Decade of AWP Conferences" at the Brevity blog.

>Publishers Weekly covers the political aspects in "AWP 2017: Politicized Writing Conference Ends With White House Vigil." There's also a round-up of all PW coverage.

>Full video of an off-site event, held at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, "Memory Transferred: Voices from the Descendants of Destruction and Displacement".

> Reflections, observations, and post-AWP thoughts, from: Amanda Lewan; Melville House; Kenyon Review; Emily Buehler (first timer).

>Finally, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, deployed a clutch of writers to report on many panels and presentations. These include (and it seems more are being added daily): 

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

What I Heard and Learned at the AWP Writers Conference

Last weekend, I spent a day and a half at the AWP conference, and because I hadn't planned things out in advance, I missed a lot I'm sure that, had I spent more time studying the program, would have been useful. I went with my gut, with my knee's pain level, and my energy and willingness to scout out a tucked away presentation room three-quarters of a mile of connecting walkways and escalators away.

As many conference attendees do, I sometimes caught the first half of a panel presentation, then ducked out to listen to the second half of another. It may be that someone, in one of the sessions I mention below, said something extraordinarily exciting and I missed it. Nevertheless, here's a potpourri of the takeaways I either jotted into my notebook, or that made their way into my brain. 

At a panel playfully called, "Nope, That Still Ain't a Story: Developmental Editing in Creative Nonfiction," two authors and their editor discussed their joint experiences. Bill Patrick, of Hudson Whitman Excelsior College Press, explained that while Amy Ryan "didn’t have a book" when she brought him her manuscript of living with diabetes, writer Anthony D'Aries "had four books" lurking in his manuscript about learning to understand his father. Ryan talked about getting instructions from Patrick about chapters she needed to write, often more personal and revealing than she'd planned; D'Aries discussed the process of locating the essence of his story, and paring away. 

Patrick also mentioned the value of "bridge chapters". These explore the less personal aspects of the main memoir topic/story, but are related and connected to the larger picture. They give the reader a bit of a break from heavy unfolding narrative, and act as a way of moving the camera from close-up to a wider angle; they can also provide context of how the narrator's story fits into the broader world.

> If you're thinking of running a one- or multi-day workshop, retreat, mini-conference, there was the panel, "Starting Small: Grassroots Workshops and Conferences". Dave Housley from Barrelhouse suggested finding a like-minded organization to partner with—like a college, arts center, etc.—that can provide free or low-cost space. Tyler McMahon, who runs the Ko`oalu Writers Workshop  in Hawaii, warned, "Don't run at a deficit; you want to break even or make money from the start." Another good tip: serve a free lunch at a session for which you want a large audience! For those seeking gigs as presenters or workshop leaders at small conferences, panelists advised developing a unique program that other writers can't offer, and/or something you've developed specifically for their audience.

> At "Opening the Doors to Discovery: The Generative Writing Workshop," panelists offered interesting ways to utilize prompts, writing exercises, and reading for inspiration when conducting one-time workshops with time for writers to produce new material. Baron Wormser (one of my MFA workshop leaders a decade ago), said he thinks of a prompt as "a quick way into the unconscious, to get at the unknown, the unbidden." It forces a writer to access some new area of thought because something must be produced in the time allotted. Another panelist advised that at one-time gatherings (as opposed to on-going workshop series), reading and sharing be met only with positive responses, absent critical feedback. Kim Dana Kupperman recommended locating prompts within a piece of published work the group reads together.

> "Essaying the Edge: Teaching Alternative Forms of Nonfiction," focused on the so-called hermit crab essay, hybrids, collage, and other experimental nonfiction. Panelists talked of sneaking in these forms without at first identifying them, so that students might simply read and like them, and decide on their own what to call them.

> At the panel, "Just Don't Read the Comments: On the Joys and Risks of Publishing Personal Essays Online," I heard just the last ten minutes, including advice from Laura Bogart to ask for headline approval and hashtag/tagging approval, pre-publication. Her awareness of this was spurred by an incident when one of her essays was headlined and tagged in a way that included Trump's four-word slogan; she asked that it be changed, and the editor/venue complied, but not before it had resulted in unpleasant emails and online thrashing.

> At an abundantly informative panel, "Beyond the Classroom: Teaching Outside Academia," I was scribbling so fast, and all four panelists were making so many useful suggestions every minute, I didn't record who said what. The following bits of advice came from Stuart Horwitz, Julie DuffyJane FriedmanAndi Cumbo-Floyd, and Gabriella Pereira.

Know what you WANT to teach (not just what you've been teaching all along). You'll earn more by teaching/leading an add-on workshop at a conference than if you are one of the general presenters. Develop packages and products to offer repeat clients/students. Offer a free something to attract mailing list sign-ups. Hand out (or offer to email) something useful following an in-person teaching event. Pitch your online or in-person class with a very specific outcome highlighted ("After four weeks, you'll have two essays ready to submit.."). Students and coaching clients want to be held accountable, so build in a deadline/reporting/accountability component. Offer tiered pricing if possible [$X for the full feedback option; $(X-Y) for a scaled down version.] Include student/client accomplishments in your promotional materials. 

> Finally, it seemed fitting that, in Washington, D.C., during the final session of the final day, I ended by listening to one particular panelist whose sincere, practical and pragmatic, encouraging talk on "How to Publish Your Book Without an Agent," made me want to stand up and shout, Nevertheless, She Persisted! That panelist was Janice Eidus, someone I recognized from Facebook and from her essays, but had never met. But by happy coincidence I'd share dinner with her later that evening (via invitation of a mutual writing friend). Eidus and her fellow panelists' stories of perseverance and eventual publication—and the sprawling Book Fair where I found at least a dozen independent traditional publishers of literary works that I was not previously aware of (and trust me, I'd already compiled a long list!)—capped off my personal AWP experience on a hopeful note.

Want more post-AWP coverage? I'll have a bunch of links to others' blog posts in the Friday link round up later this week. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Writer Fights AWP Siren. AWP Wins. Notes on a Last Minute Writers Conference Trip.

I wasn't planning on it. However, early in the evening last Thursday, as snow pelted New Jersey and much of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic coast, unraveling on Facebook were posts by writers from all over whose cancelled flights and delayed trains made me wonder: might the headquarters hotel attached to the Washington, D.C. Convention Center—the only place I would consider staying (bad knee issues), the place that has been sold out for six months—have cancelled rooms available?

It did. And with a hotel rewards membership, and my AAA card, for a price below the AWP group rate.

I didn't have any Friday deadlines, didn't need to teach again in person until Monday, couldn't think of any more excuses. Besides, sometimes a writer woman (who works mainly alone at home) just needs to get the hell out of Dodge and see a few other writers—or maybe 12,000 of them—in person.

Which explains why, less than 12 hours later, I was in my car at 5:00 a.m. on a frigid Friday morning, bound for D.C., a four hour drive. Lucky me, I like to drive, love a road trip, and had a book and the Hamilton CDs already loaded. As I cranked the heat in the car, sipped hot tea my husband had handed me after walking me across our icy driveway, I had a lightness that never normally accompanies me when venturing to a writers conference: a feeling of possibility and adventure borne I guess from something I don’t get enough of: serendipity and spontaneity.

I'm a planner. An advance planner, someone who likes being organized, knows what's coming up on my schedule. But more to the point, when I head to a conference, I am typically armed with a carefully thought-out mental and physical list of tasks I have self-assigned. Tasks I tell myself I must do, so that I'll feel the expense, time, and opportunity pays off: connections I should make, people I should talk to, panels I should attend, secrets I should, once and for all, uncover and finally understand about this writing life.

Notice all the shoulds?

Which may help explain why for months, maybe a year, I had been resigned to not attending the behemoth AWP Conference last week, for all the usual (cover) reasons—budgets, time, my lousy knee. The conference is too big, too tiring, too much to handle -- all those far-more-accomplished-than-me writers all in one place being too much of a reminder of all I think I SHOULD have done in my writing career by now, and haven't.

Driving through the lightening darkness last Friday morning, however, without my usual "should" agenda, having not even skimmed the conference schedule, something shifted. I felt released from my usual mode of attack. What if, I asked myself, I had no plan? No list of things I should accomplish, people I must find? What if, instead of arriving burdened with lists of items to tick off, I simply tried to enjoy the conference? Enjoy others? Enjoy myself?

What if, when I arrived, I did just what seemed appealing? Went to panels that sounded interesting, or where colleagues were appearing, just because? What if I got to hug online friends I'd been wanting to meet in person, but if not, not? What if I wandered the daunting book fair—where the tables of publishers, journals, MFA programs, and vendors stretched across a double-football-field-sized space—with an open mind, and not a tightly clutched list?

Reader, that's precisely what I did.

I arrived in D.C. mid-morning on Friday and from then until the crazy, zany, octopus-like conference wrapped up on Saturday night, I did not do one thing that, had I meticulously planned my trip in advance, I worried I should do. 

I simply drifted to what called to me, listening to my gut. Yes, I saw writing friends and colleagues, made new connections, met a few folks I've long wanted to meet. But without agenda, sans lists and shoulds. I approached the book fair as if it were an amusement park (or new shoe store!), listening to my feet and gut, picking up random new information as if I'd accidentally struck gold (and of course, gathering swag - see pic above!) 

Over the two days, I maintained a newfound sense of, whatever happened, happened. And I had perhaps the best conference experience of my life.

I'll be back later this week with some of my favorite take-aways and tidbits. That I am planning on!

Friday, February 3, 2017

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- February 3, 2017 Edition

>Rejection notes are never fun. But the Baltimore Review has found a way to at least make them helpful. Witness the ending of one I recently received: "...I hope that you enjoyed writing on this theme and that you will soon be able to place the work in another publication. See long lists of other publication possibilities at... " followed by links to four places to find submission opportunities --  New PagesCreative Writing Opportunities Listserve, Poets & Writers, and The Review Review. 

>If you're trying to establish a write-every-day habit, you might try 750words.

>Not new, but useful/entertaining: authors whose significant other doesn't read their books. 

>Since last fall, I've been editing the craft essays about nonfiction writing for Cleaver Magazine, and I'm so pleased with the latest two pieces: Vivian Wagner with how poetry writing is changing her nonfiction, and Megan Culhane Galbraith on the way playing with dolls (!) is helping unlock her memoir writing.

>Finally, two fun items: if you're also a middle-of-the-night scribbler, enjoy Sarah Broussard Weaver's post at the Brevity blog. But if days are a problem, try Colin Nissan's cry for help Daily Shouts piece at the New Yorker, "I Work From Home."

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Guest Blogger Melanie Brooks on: Writing Your Story, and Crying if you Want (or Need) To

Besides social media connections, and having graduated from the same MFA program, Melanie Brooks and I share a love of reading memoirs that must have cost their authors an emotional toll—those she covers in her forthcoming book, Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art From Trauma. [We're giving away a copy, too!]

Melanie works as a freelance writer and teaches at Northeastern University and Merrimack College in Massachusetts, and at Nashua Community College in New Hampshire, where she lives with her husband, two children and yellow Lab. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Bustle, The Manifest-Station, Hippocampus, Huffington Post, Modern Loss, Solstice Literary Magazine, Recollectors, Stonecoast Review and Word Riot. Melanie's also working on an almost-completed memoir that explores the lasting impact of living with the ten-year secret of her father’s HIV disease before his death in 1995.

Please welcome Melanie Brooks.

The questions were simple: “What are you writing about and what form is it taking?” So, why was I finding it harder and harder to breathe as the seminar leader meandered her way toward me? As she solicited responses from the other students in the crowded room, why was there a sudden tightness in my chest? It wasn’t as if I didn’t know the answers.

I’d started my MFA at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Creative Writing Program with a clear purpose—space and time to finally write into a complex family story I’d carried for over twenty years, a story I recognized was big enough to be a book. But when the leader’s kind gaze finally fell on me, the words caught in my throat. I mumbled something about writing about my dead dad, then a strangled sob hijacked anything else I might say, and a deluge of tears broke through my reserve. I was sitting at the wall-end of a cramped row, with no possibility of discreet escape. For the remainder of the ninety-minute seminar, I struggled to stop my nose from dripping without the benefit of a tissue, and I bit my lip until I tasted blood, to muffle the hiccupping sobs that fought to surface.

Nothing in the introductory materials the program coordinators sent out in the months leading up to that first MFA residency had readied me for this horrifying public moment of absolute composure meltdown. No neon labels were affixed to the pages of the orientation handbook broadcasting: WARNING: Writing about vulnerable material can leave you feeling rawly vulnerable. Be prepared to cry. A lot. At inconvenient times.

So when the inconvenient crying first erupted during that seminar, I thought something was wrong with me. And when it happened again while my workshop group discussed my manuscript, I felt the need to make excuses to put everyone else at ease. “I cry all the time,” I said, even though I don’t. “Just call me The Crier from here on out,” I joked, sidelining my emotions.

The truth was that, during the residency, and in the following months when I sat in front of my computer, mired in the very real anguish of trying to shape my painful memories into words, I felt alone. So alone, I almost quit.

I needed to find someone to tell me what I was feeling was okay. Normal. Expected, even. If someone could tell me those things, then maybe I could marshal up enough courage to keep going.

In what began as a very personal (and totally selfish) quest, I went looking for that someone to guide me back to my laptop, someone to tell me those things I needed to hear about my pain and loneliness and fear. I wrote to authors I admired—those whose memoirs did not shy away from any of the tough stuff— and told them how much I was struggling. I asked them if I could sit down with them and talk about the psychological journeys they had to go on to write their books. 

What I found when I reached out was more than someone. I found eighteen someones. Eighteen acclaimed writers—including Andre Dubus III, Mark Doty, Edwidge Danticat, Abigail Thomas, and Richard Blanco— who all responded to my query and welcomed the opportunity to answer my questions and offer some hard-earned wisdom. Writers who’d been as terrified as I was when they began their memoirs. Who’d written into their own hard stories and made it through. Eighteen writers who’d all experienced, at some point during their processes, the inconvenient crying.

The intimate stories these brilliant and generous memoirists told me about their own struggles to find words for painful and traumatic experiences, their misgivings along the way, their moments of wanting to quit, and their ultimate relief that they did not quit, all encouraged me to keep writing and gave me the steadying I needed.

Instead of keeping these conversations to myself, I wrote Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art From Trauma (forthcoming from Beacon Press on February 7). Each chapter is an in-depth narrative profile of my discussion with one of these authors. I share the circumstances of our meetings – from walking dogs with Mark Doty in the Hamptons; lunch with Marianne Leone and her husband, Oscar winner Chris Cooper at their home on Massachusetts’ South Shore; sipping a cup of tea while sprawled across Kate Bornstein’s bed in her New York City apartment - and the amazing insights I gain.

Since my questions are less about craft and more about survival, I tap into some areas of these authors’ processes that they’ve never shared before. I reflect on how each of these exchanges moved me away from the place where my memories were burying me and toward a completed memoir. I was motivated to turn these experiences into Writing Hard Stories by a realization that others facing the daunting journey to write into their long-carried stories, writers who also felt isolated by their particular circumstances, needed those stories and that steadying, too.

Maybe if I’d had the gift of these conversations sooner, before I started my MFA even, I might not have been so thrown by the emotions that surfaced when writing about my experiences, and when, more often than not, doing so felt like reliving those traumatic experiences. On that day of the streaming tears and hiccupping sobs, when all I wanted to do was hightail it out of that seminar room, I might, instead, have been able to turn to the person sitting next to me, shrug my shoulders, and simply say, “You know, this is what they told me would probably happen.”  

Note from Lisa: Melanie would like to send one blog reader a signed copy of Writing Hard Stories. Simply ask her a question here in the comments (and she'll stop by and answer), and you'll be entered. (U.S. postal address is required.) Post your comment by Sunday, Feb. 12.

You can connect with Melanie via Facebook, Twitter, and her website.