Thursday, March 30, 2017

Recognizing When Life (not writing) Could be the Start of a Beautiful....Essay

The actual dress, made to twirl.
If I weren't already a natural born advance planner (or an annoyingly, meticulously, obsessively detail-oriented nag, as my kids and husband might say, eyes rolling), my former career in public relations would have transformed me anyway.

Like many magazines, I often run a few months ahead of schedule. So since I'll be presenting a one-day event on writing short nonfiction prose in May, and a submissions class over the summer, I'm gathering examples for both. Some are my own work because that way I can answer student/writer questions, and by sharing my writing / revision / submission / rejection / acceptance process, I believe I can be helpful to others.

This past Monday, my 250-word work of flash nonfiction, "A Dress for the Wedding," appeared on the River Teeth website, in their Beautiful Things column. I think I'm correct in saying this is a somewhat coveted spot for many creative nonfiction writers, and I'm extremely proud about this particular publication.

Here's how that happened.

In many ways I went about this as I did when working to break into Brevity Magazine with this piece. (I went on to describe that writing/submission process here.).

One of the keys was not trying to slice a small chunk out of an already written long piece. Flash, I've come to understand, needs its own place to, perhaps ironically, expand and breathe, to open up space between sentences, even as it carves away.

The other thing I learned is that, for me anyway, short pieces are more often suggested by something I experience or remember independent of the act of writing. In other words, life is probably the more generous well for these short flashes, not editing.

The dress piece began with notes scratched in the tiny notebook I keep in my purse—while in the ladies' room at the wedding. Having gotten drenched in a downpour walking back from the church to the car, I ducked in the restroom as soon as we got to the reception venue to try to salvage my hairstyle.

It was while looking in the mirror, and twisting to get a glance at the back, when a few things happened. I realized (1) The blowout is a total loss, and (2) This dress was exactly the right choice. Then (3) A cascade of images: turning around in the dressing room at the store…showing my husband the dress choices in our bedroom…all my rules about dressing as a fat middle-aged woman…then: (4) Wait – there's an essay in this…somewhere.

I jotted a few notes. When Frank and I danced an hour later, and I found myself twirling, I had the rest of the piece. So it was back to the ladies' room, a few more notes, and then—I forgot about it.

Forgot on purpose. I wanted it to marinate. Then I returned to it, wrote a draft, read a bunch of past B.T. essays, and revised.

This was my second submission to River Teeth's Beautiful Things; the first, from 2015, was rejected. When I went back to read it again, I realized it didn't stand up so well on its own, and it wound up being absorbed into my memoir manuscript, where it probably originally belonged.

Figuring out how to write for very limited word counts, what to write for which short-form venues we aspire to be published in, and where to send off what we write, are arts that are always evolving. I'm still learning. And though the "rejected" column in my submission tracking spreadsheet is routinely, robustly full, occasionally I do get it right.

And then of course, I annoyingly, meticulously, obsessively record all the details. For any future reference.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Guest Blogger Judy Mollen Walters on Creating Fictional Worlds From What We Know

I shared a meal at the AWP conference last month with four other writers. We're all part of the same Facebook group of women writers, and when discussing where we each live, they assumed I already knew their mutual friend Judy Mollen Walters, who lives less than an hour from me in New Jersey. Well, I didn't then, but I do now. Judy is a novelist and also writes occasional essays, with work in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, SheKnows, Spring St. Scary Mommy, Kveller, and other places. Looks like I met Judy just in time to learn about her fifth novel, A Million Ordinary Days, published this month—and invite her to write this guest post.

Please welcome Judy Mollen Walters.

You know what writers I admire the most? Historical fiction writers, who are able to catapult themselves—and their readers—into a completely different time, whether it be back to the ancient days of the Romans, the time of twentieth century World War I or WWII heroes and survivors, or when the Declaration of Independence was signed. Even those who write about the 1960s and 70s, when flower power and bell bottom jeans were in full fashion, impress me.

Historical novelists can go back and visit a completely different space and time, and literally plunk their readers right there beside them. They need to conduct hours and hours, and days and days, and months and months of research—online and in person research, talking to historians, librarians, and experts, taking countless notes, and reading countless books about their subjects. And that’s all before they start writing. And, as they go along, drafting, revising, rewriting.

I hate research. I always have. I can remember when I was in middle school, trying to learn the techniques of research, annoyed and bored out of my mind. As soon as I got to the library, I didn’t scurry to the encyclopedias to look up my topic. I went to the fiction section to find a new novel to read. Research was painstakingly agonizing for me, looking up articles, trying to find good, interesting information, and then just as painful to try to flesh it all out into a solid paper. I just didn’t care. I only wanted to go back into worlds I knew along with authors like Judy Blume, worlds I was familiar with. I loved realistic fiction about girls my own age, then.

Now as a writer, I have the same tastes. I am the opposite of the go-into-other-worlds, spend-a-lot-of-time-researching historical fiction writer. I’m in the solid write-what-you-know camp. For me, that’s contemporary women’s fiction. I write about families and mothers and wives. Many of my characters have some sort of affliction or illness or struggle that I’ve either gone through personally or can identify with because I know someone who has experienced it. 

Subjects I’ve explored in my novels include a Jewish family struggling with adoption (I am Jewish and know many adopted people); autism (My best friend’s son is an adult autistic man.); infertility (I went through it myself twice!); a best friendship that ends with a shock and a secret (With one of the women discovering a shocking truth about her ex-best friend, which happened to me, too.)

Yet the characters in my novels are not me, nor are they my children, husband, or family. (My sister kept trying to find herself in my books, so finally I created a character who was a middle school math teacher, like she is, so she would stop bugging me about it.)

My latest novel, A Million Ordinary Days, is about a mother like me, at the prime of her life with two daughters, battling a chronic illness. While I have Crohn’s Disease, my character has multiple sclerosis (MS). I have several friends with MS, and I reached out to them in order to make sure I was telling an accurate story. Okay, so maybe I do some casual research after all!

These friends were so supportive—and excited about—a novel about MS. They wanted a character like them to rule a novel. So they were happy to read my drafts, offering suggestions to make my character more “real.”  They also suggested blogs by writers living with MS that helped me get an accurate picture of living with the disease.

But to create my protagonists, I do not have to pursue pure research. I simply watch the lives of those around me, listen, and am able to reproduce what I observe well enough to, I think, build a credible story. My fictional worlds have everything in common with the current-day world my readers and I all live in.

If I was trying to replicate historical times, I would be miserable. There’s so much to get right: language and dress, food and lifestyle, politics and environmental conditions.  Even if I wanted to write a coming of age novel set in the 1970s and 80s when I was growing up myself, I still think I would have a hard time. I don’t remember all the fads, music, movies and TV from then!

Of course, with the Internet, research isn’t nearly as difficult now as it was back when I was in school. But that doesn’t make it any more appealing to me. I still love to write about the lives I see unfolding around me now. Mothers. Wives. Friendships. An illness or condition that's familiar. That’s how I’m most successful.

My hat's off to all the historical fiction writers out there. And the science fiction writers. And the biographers. Writers who really dare to take us into worlds so different than we could ever imagine. I admire them. But for me, I’m still sticking to the old adage: write what you know.
Note from Lisa: You can connect with Judy at her website,  Facebook, or Twitter. Find a review of her newest novel at Books is Wonderful, and order the book here.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Scratching a Familiar Writing Itch in New Way Keeps Horses on the Page

I've mentioned before that themed calls for submission—announced by literary journals, mainstream websites or magazines, or anthologies—are an excellent way to spur writing and create outside deadlines. For any writer struggling with maintaining a disciplined writing practice, or those overwhelmed by too many writing ideas, or dismayed by not having enough ideas, submission calls can help define writing time and energies.

Peruse the calls at various sites and listservs (some links here), pick one or two that appeal, and…you're off. Writing a piece that addresses the theme, adheres to the required word count, fits the style or tone of the venue, and meets any other criteria noted, are powerful ways of developing writing chops. And of course, meeting the deadline is paramount, especially for those who start but don’t finish writing projects, or just have trouble with deadlines.

The unspoken rule is that you must, of course, have something to say on the topic of the submission call. Such was the case last fall when I noticed a planned anthology on writing about animals. In my 20s and early 30s, I made a living writing about horses. In the last few years, I've been itching to write about horses again, but it's been two decades since I've been around horses on a daily basis, so I've been finding new ways of integrating horses into my writing life, resulting in many personal essays. And here was a chance to combine horses and writing into an essay about, well, horses and writing!

Off went my piece to the anthology, a combination personal essay and advice on one aspect of writing about horses. And a few weeks later, back came the rejection. That's okay, it's part of the writing life. First, you wallow. For minutes, hours, days—depends on your personal rejection wallowing style. Then, you decide: Scrap it? Make a few tweaks and send it right back out? Revise, rethink, rewrite?

I rarely scrap something, though I may let it sit for weeks or months (or longer) before I gin up the interest or energy to revise, or have the time to do so properly. That's okay, too.

With my writing-about-horses piece, I believed it had merit as it was, so I made only a few minor tweaks. The next question was where to send it. "Advice for those writing about animals" is not that common a themed submission call! So I turned to venues that publish all kinds of essays about writing craft and the writing life; in fact, I've begun to maintain a list of such outlets because I want to write and submit more pieces on writing craft.

Then, as often happens, serendipity intervened in the form of an announcement that the literary journal Hunger Mountain (published by the Vermont Center for Fine Arts, which runs a fine MFA program), was seeking new work for its writing craft website series.

And off went my piece again.

Hunger Mountain published it two weeks ago in Ephemeral Artery, the Hunger Mountain Online Companion. Here's an excerpt:

"… On the “A” level horse show circuit where, even in the 1980s, top jumpers were bought and sold for the high six figures, one of the most reassuring relationships I witnessed was between these high-priced performers and their minimum-wage earning grooms…. A fiery Thoroughbred ex-racehorse could be snorting, galloping might in the ring, but transform, once handed by the professional rider to his groom, into a cuddly, frolicking pony….My advice to those who want to write about modern horses at work or play in America: find them with their caretakers. The ones who love them whether they’ve had the fastest jump-off round that day, or if they spooked at the stray plastic bag at the side of the ring, tossing a rider on his duff. That is when you will see the real horse, the one who knows he’s safe and seems to understand when nothing is expected of her except that she exist…"

You can read all of  "When Prose Turns to Horses, Remember the Humans," here. And, for more on the horse-writing connection, see Annie Penfield's essay in the same section, "On Rhythm—In Sentences."

Let me know of your experiences with writing to themed calls for submission. Or writing about animals, or horses, or whatever's going on in your writing life now!

Monday, March 20, 2017

A Day at the Museum: Matisse Nearby, and Letting Inspiration Find Me

Henri Matisse "Yellow Odalisque"
I value inspiration, but I don't often go in search of it. Inspiration usually finds me via something else I’m doing—research for an already-begun writing project, a planned personal or business outing.

Like what happened during a trip to see the "Matisse and American Art" exhibit at the Montclair (NJ) Art Museum. Though this museum is a well-respected gem only a few miles from my house, I don't get there often enough. But my 2017 resolution is to support (not just talk about) organizations that matter—ranging from social justice to the arts. So I made a plan to attend the much-celebrated new exhibit, and pony up annual membership (so I'll be financially inspired to return). The timing meant my sister Cathy and I would have something to do together (other than haunt our favorite diners and bakeries) when she visited.

Cathy's the real art lover in the family; she knows the difference between Monet and Manet, and whether something is impressionist or impressive (or both). I enjoy looking at art, but for me it's always been an enjoyable sometime thing, not a passion.

Henri Matisse—and the American artists influenced by him—may have converted me. But the real bonus: new observations and thoughts about why I'm write  about some of the things I write about, my relationship to the prose, and even a few essay ideas. I'll keep the essay ideas to myself (half-baked as they are still), but as a writer, here's what I came away with:

+ Color! Rich, vivid, bold, drenched colors.(Yep, I used four adjectives in a row.) Colors saturated with ideas and emotion, suggestive and nuanced! Colors were speaking to me. Hard to believe some of Matisse's early critics called his use of color ugly and his first paintings something to laugh at. The world caught on, of course. A magazine feature on Matisse displayed notes, "All the colors sing together…like a musical chord." Like the words and sentences in a piece of writing.

Matisse, "Woman in Blue"
+ Matisse influenced so many artists. I was struck by John Baldessari's "Eight Soups" and Roy Lichtenstein's bronze "Goldfish Bowl II", which build on details in Matisse's works, combined with Warhol's soup cans. I'm reminded of how writers create new prose that couldn't exist if not for the foundations, references, styles of writers who came before. When writes quote Proust, build on a Shakespearian pun, obliquely reference Didion, they are both acknowledging those who paved new literary paths, and paying tribute, and if very lucky (and very good), perhaps making something that extends and expands instead of imitating.

+ Matisse believed in using "all the colors," and this spurs me to think more widely about all the literary tools at my disposal. It nudges me to remember about all the forms I don't regularly try, structures and organizational methods I want to experiment with but often pass over for the safer, more reliable methods.

+ Standing too close to visual art warps perspective. Stepping back brings the visuals into focus. Like creating distance from a manuscript draft is vital. Too close to the same material—page or canvas—and you no longer really see it.

Matisse, "Pianist and Checker Players"
+ My two favorite Matisse works were "Interior at Nice" and "Pianist and Checker Player"—the former because it brings me back to the feeling of being cosseted at a seaside inn (beautiful hotels being one of my favorite places), and the latter recalls my many childhood evenings when my sister was playing piano (beautifully), and I was playing checkers (poorly) with my mother. For writers, memory triggers—that can turn into stories and pages—are waiting everywhere!

+ Cathy and I were captivated by the bold, exquisite works of contemporary mixed media artist Janet Taylor Pickett and her "Matisse Series," which includes many pieces that play with the shape and colors of Matisse's
"Woman in Blue" and his later-career cutout works, and the form and symbolism of women's dresses.

Janet Taylor Pickett, "Wrapped Up in Blue"
+ Like all great acts of inspiration, the visit tipped me into exploration—finding more Matisse works to look at online and reliving Pickett's exhibit via this compelling video, which she narrates and appears in, tracing her own inspirational journey to and from Matisse.

+ You can't visit the Montclair Art Museum without stopping at the George Inness permanent collection, and there on a placard was this, describing the 19th century American landscape artist:

"He refined an approach of conveying the greatest amount of information by means of the fewest marks of the brush."

A reminder about doing more with less, about, essentially, editing. How appropriate to end my excursion to the visual art world with this gentle reminder about the art of brevity in all art forms.

Images courtesy Montclair Art Museum

Friday, March 17, 2017

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- March 17, 2017 Edition

> For now, essayist Phillip Lopate's regular column in The American Scholar, "Full Disclosure," is focused on his teaching experiences in Shanghai. (hat tip @NStuckeyFrench)

> What does it mean to "read above your head"? And why is it important for all writers to do so? Marion Roach Smith, an excellent memoir teacher, will tell you.

> The Open Notebook is a database of successful pitches to noteworthy media, sent by freelance writers who mostly cover science stories. But if you're any kind of freelancer who routinely must query editors for assignments, you will learn a ton from this deep and smart trove. W
hile there, also check out this survey on gender differences among querying writers.

> Did you know Submittable (the submissions portal) now has an app? (Heaven help those who already can't resist checking their status multiple times a day...)

>Not new (from Summer 2016) but very interesting thoughts at Solstice from DeWitt Henry on what makes a "contemporary" writer.

>Writers - your coffee break humor is here. Check out "What Happens When Bookstore Employees Get Bored" (and pose with book covers).

> Finally, here's my  piece at Grown and Flown about what filling out March Madness NCAA brackets means to me (who knows nothing) and to my son (who definitely does).

Have a great weekend!

Image: Flickr/CreativeCommons-Pieces of the Past

Monday, March 13, 2017

A TV Friends Reunion Essay: The Ones About How it Used to Be

Here in New Jersey, we're expecting a major snowstorm to begin tonight, with possible accumulations up to two feet. I'll be peeking out the window tonight, likely at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning (I don't sleep much), while I'm intermittently reading, finishing some needlepoint, or scribbling feedback on student work. 

But in the background: my own version of nostalgia TV, shows from the 1960s and 70s. I don't have to watch every scene, because I know those characters, I love those characters; I'm comfortable in their company. Recently, I started to think about why. And so of course I wrote about it.

The essay, "Reminiscing with my TV Friends," appears today at The Sunlight Press.

Here's an excerpt:

"...I began to linger. Then to seek out those old shows. Slowly, I understood: I was revisiting a time when I had a beautiful mother who walked this earth, a time when a cool aunt waited for her pimply chubby niece on Saturday nights, a time when a kind father never ran out of time for me, when my lovely now-67-year-old sister was as fresh and young as Patty and as unlined and peachy as Laura Petrie. I’m revisiting, even more than all of them—myself."

You can read the entire (short) essay here.

Short pieces like this, which is just under 750 words and is often called "flash nonfiction," will be part of the focus of a day-long writing event I'm leading in early May.

Image: courtesy The Sunlight Press

Friday, March 3, 2017

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

> Annette Gendler gave up on submitting to literary magazines, and it was the right thing for her writing life.

> Interesting (and slightly odd) interview with George Suanders at Lit Hub.

> What not to do at a writing conference, according to Author Accelerator's Jennie Nash. So much good advice here.

> American for the Arts is now tracking "Arts Mobilization Efforts" at their website, as arts groups nationwide gear up for possible cuts and losses under the new administration.

> At The Sunlight Press, Nina Badzin offers a look at her idiosyncratic system for capturing writing ideas before they fade away.

> If your guest post ideas/pitches aren't getting the go-ahead, Jessica Lawlor (who edits guest posts for two blogs), lists all the possible reasons why.

> At The Masters Review, a round-up of TED talks by writers, including Billy Collins, Roxane Gay, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lidia Yuknavitch, and others.

> What to do when you hire an editor and the feedback on your manuscript indicates a key fundamental issue that you agree needs attention, but you might not be ready to tackle it? Jennifer Lang explores the territory on the Brevity Blog.

Have a great weekend!

Image: Flickr/CreativeCommons