Friday, July 28, 2017

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- July 28, 2017 Edition

> An end of a book review era: Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, steps down.

> At the Brevity blog, Jennifer Lang, on how she conquers the loneliness and isolation of writing alone at home, and is building a writing community post-MFA while living abroad. 

> If you can't get away for weeks, sometimes, you can still claim your own mini writing "residency," as Chloe Yelena Miller did.

> At The Millions, check out the Booker Prize longlist (including four U.S. titles).

> Department of Shameless Self-Promotion: If you are headed to HippoCamp17: Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers, here's an interview with me about my breakout session, "Submission Strategy: Beyond Wish Lists, Tiers, and Industry Buzz," and my Lightning Round talk, "I'll Take Titles for a Thousand, Alex."  > And over at The Bookends Review, I'm interviewed by poet and anthology editor Carol Smallwood.

Have a great weekend!

Image Flickr/CreativeCommons

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Friends Don't Let (their writing) Friends Go It Alone

Recently I've had several occasions to mentally review a rather longish list of people who have been helpful to me in my writing life over the past ten years. 

In either some rather large way, and/or in many smaller ways, folks have lent encouragement, provided helpful introductions to others, listened, read pages and offered feedback, and given me sound and thoughtful advice--including some of the hard-to-take kind of counsel that I almost certainly ignored for a while until, finally, I was truly ready to hear. 

Lately, I'm simply feeling thankful. Lucky. And a lot more aware and comprehending of the genuine need and significant benefits of a true literary community, one that operates on mutual respect and reciprocity. I may not be able to "pay back" each kindness or bit of assistance in equal measure, and there are certainly some professional leg-ups and/or personal favors that aren't even in the category of possibly paying back anyway. 

But I've come to accept that this is okay. 

Because I realize that every time I try to help a writer in any small way I can, it acknowledges and honors those who've have helped me--sometimes in ways or at a time when I have wondered, why? Why is this eternally busy, extremely successful, definitely stretched-to-the-limit person--who surely has more important or inviting writing-world requests/tasks to attend to--inexplicably helping little old me?

As my father once explained long ago when I asked why he helped so many people--in business, in the neighborhood, in the extended family: you help because you can. Because you have been blessed with something you can share. Because you remember what it's like to need help. Because when you help someone, they'll help someone else. And so it goes. 

Dad also taught me not to be afraid to ask for help. You may have to swallow hard and psych yourself up first, but ask. I've been asking a bunch lately, and trying not to feel guilty about it. Trying to remember that most people actually want to help others. 

Sure, some folks will disappoint (I've heard a few No's recently). That's okay, too. That's why--as Mom once said--you need more than one friend, so that when you want to go to the pool and your bestie isn't around (or is temporarily mad at you), you won't have to sit in the hot backyard alone.

Some days you grumble about the stuff you don't have on your writing resume yet, the things may never get to publish or do, the writing world goals you are sure you can't possibly accomplish. 

Other days--like today, for me--you look around and see nothing but blue sky. Because you're being held up.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- July 21, 2017 Edition

> Interesting interview with Julia Fierro about new new novel, The Gypsy Moth Summer.

> Also at The Millions, lists and capsule previews of 40+ "great" books coming in the second half of 2017.

> Looking for a few good outdoorsy / adventure books for the rest of the summer?

> And now: are some modern male novelists channeling George Eliot?

> Check out these drool-worthy vintage bookstores of Los Angeles.

> What would your shelves look like if you had 4,000 books? How about 40,000, or 400,000?

> Finally, you may have wondered why Jane Austen was trending on Twitter yesterday. Sigh. 

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Mid-Year Reading-Like-A-Writer Reality Check-In

I decided early in 2017 that I wanted to read a lot more books. Not entirely a stunning revelation for a writer! I wanted to read more books that aren't required for work, ones that are new-to-me (and not re-reads), books languishing in my to-be-read pile and/or one I hear out about and suddenly must read, now. 

It's working.

Though, you wouldn't know it from my Goodreads tally, because I so often forget to list them--even though, accountability advocate that I am--I had absolutely, positively, definitely told myself I would! Over there, I'm committed to reading 65 books this year, and each time I open the site, I'm confronted with the admonition that I'm "15 books behind"! No, no I'm not, I protest, aloud, in my empty home office. 

One reason the GR tally is off is, ironically, related to the very way I'm getting more reading done: about a chapter before I finish the book I'm currently reading, I start the next. Just a few pages here and there (and yes, it feels like cheating on a trusting boyfriend!), just enough so that when I close a book, that inevitable feeling of loss and abandonment--and sometimes the silly thought that no next book could possibly ever come close--doesn't keep me from opening and starting the next book. 

You know that feeling, don't you, the one that makes you melancholy, wistful, or sad to leave a beloved character or narrator behind. It can sometimes hang about for days, keeping me from starting the next book. Yes, occasionally that feeling was, is, delicious. I actually want to wallow in that dreamy world-of-the-book for a bit longer. 

Already being at least a little bit inside the next book is a reliable way to keep reading, but it's also the reason I forget to record my progress. The trade-off is worth it, though. Those reading gaps, the time between books, were adding up. Let's face it, there's never going to be enough time to read, what with all the other demands on our time, and in a more practical/philosophical/mortal/morbid sense: we're all going to outlive out to-be-read pile, after all.

A bit sobering, but there you have it.

Another tiny trick that's helping: making sure the current book is on the same level of the house as I am. Really, I'm not kidding. If I remember to carry the book downstairs in the morning, then when I'm done working for the day (in my upstairs home office), it's handy while I'm waiting for dinner to cook, or relaxing on the couch or patio, and when I can't avoid commercials when watching live TV. Likewise, when I remember to bring the book back upstairs at the end of an evening, it's more likely I'll read before bed and/or in the early morning, when the husband leaves very early for work and I could sleep longer but just can't. 

Seems silly, but if I have to go back up or down those 11 stairs well, instead of reading more of the current book, I may grab my phone and scroll for a mindless few minutes that turns into an hour that sucks the life out of reading time.

Right now, I'm making my way through a somewhat specialized section of the to-be-read pile (having added about six more in the books-by-MFA-friends category, including Stolen Beauty). Next, I'm eyeing novels that, for various reasons logical and/or esoteric, have been tempting me from the master to-be-read pile: Lincoln in the Bardo, The Mare, The Great House, The Cottonmouths (won in a giveaway over at The Debutante Ball). Oh but maybe first, or in-between, the memoirs Hunger, Year of the Horse, and Guesswork. Or...

That's it for today. I have another 30 minutes before I need to get ready for a workshop. What shall I do?

Image - top, Flickr/CreativeCommons-Tim Geer

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Memoir Book Report: Process, Production, Path to Publication – Part I: Sign, Wait, Hope, Think, Revise

Perhaps you already know that my memoir is under contract with University of Nevada Press for a late spring 2018 publication date. I thought it might be interesting—and could possibly help preserve my sanity—if every so often, I post a Book Report, sharing what's happening as I make my way from manuscript to published book.

Today, I'll backtrack a bit for a glimpse into the early process of working with a university-affiliated publisher.  

With a university press (in many, though not all cases), you sign a contract and then—you wait, and you hope. Yes, they want to publish your book, but it's not a completely sure thing, not just yet. I signed my contract on April 11. The next step is feedback from "peer reviewers"—respected professionals in the genre (in my case, memoir), who the press asks to read the manuscript and offer substantial feedback—pro and con.

The period of time when my book was out with the peer reviewers? Let's just say I had few fingernails left of any appreciable length. Fortunately for me, this element was fast-tracked, so it was only a month of waiting and wondering, a month of plunging and soaring emotions: They'll hate it…They might love it…I hope they at least like it. (I tried not to think about author friends whose books were dropped because of poor peer reviews; when I did think of that, I reminded myself that those books were eventually published elsewhere.)

Alas, the reviews were overall positive, and I was relieved that many of the suggested revisions aligned with my own instincts. Those weeks when I knew others were reading and judging my work? They were a chance for me to—as much as it's possible—cast a new, critical eye to my polished manuscript…and notice the places where the polish wasn't quite as bright and shiny as I'd like. I wanted to get to those revisions.

But first, the publisher's editorial board had to officially approve the project, and while it's never a rubber stamp, I was buoyed by the faith and confidence of the director of the press, who'd initially acquired my book. In advance of the board meeting, I needed to prepare a response note, referencing the reviewers' recommendations and outlining a plan for tackling revisions. I was lucky that the reviewers had given the manuscript such careful thought and made many smart suggestions, and that I had wonderful support from the press director—making the drafting of the response note into a creatively enriching endeavor for me. 

It became my revision roadmap.

Once the board said YES (on May 22), I had five weeks to revise. What followed was—except for back in early 2016 when I transformed the original linked essay collection into linear narrative—the most demanding, as well as the most gratifying part of the manuscript process.

But first I had to clear time and mental space.

I'm usually managing too much – teaching, editing, coaching, freelance assignments. I craved fewer demands, time to think clearly and creatively without the calendar as enemy. Fortunately, the academic semester had ended. I did ask some private clients to wait until I'd finished my revisions to begin working with me; fortunately they agreed. For a few others whose schedules weren't malleable, I matched them with amazing editors/coaches I know (I'm thankful for a superb literary community to call upon). Except for two small projects and some non-academic teaching, I wound up with about four weeks practically to myself.

This gave me the luxury to slow down, to think only about my book, to work when my brain was in best form instead of when I had to squeeze it in—and to do some extra research and supplemental reading I had long suspected would help enrich certain passages. I was able to "live inside the book" so to speak, to stay inside that world, deeper and longer, but without sequestering myself away. (Which led me to a new respect and desire for the benefits of artist retreats and residencies; alas, maybe next book.)

One day ahead of schedule, I hit SEND—tremendously relieved but also a bit wistful. In some small way, I wanted that concentrated deep-dive time back, more time to live inside the pages that, until then, had been mine alone. Now, those pages are moving along the production line to a time when others will enter that world—editors, art and production experts, eventually reviewers and readers. That's exciting. And a bit nerve-wracking, an odd sort of feeling.

Stay tuned for future Books Reports about: the actual revision process (I loved it, it drove me a little nuts, I made mistakes, I learned); a look back at how I found my publisher; what key things I changed in my query before that; how I landed my agent; choosing photographs (yes, there will be pics!); permissions; and the thing that's occupying me right now: finding some fabulous titles to suggest to the publisher (did I say: publishing is collaborative?).

If there's anything you're wondering about, shoot me a question in comments and I'll try to cover in a future post.


Monday, July 10, 2017

Guest Blogger Bernadette Murphy on how X-Games for Nerds Turned into Memoir

In this space, I like to mention how I came to know my guest blogger. This is becoming difficult, as I'm blessed with such a wide and rich literary community; I get to chatting with a fellow writer online, or at a conference, emails or texts start flying, and before I know it, I can't recall how we first came into contact. Such a great problem! So it is with Bernadette Murphy. Let's just say: I'm glad we keep crossing paths!

Bernadette is the author of Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life (Counterpoint Press, hardback May 2016, paperback May 2017), as well as three previous books of narrative nonfiction including the bestselling Zen and the Art of Knitting. She's an Associate Professor in the Creative Writing Department of Antioch University Los Angeles, and a former weekly book critic for the Los Angeles Times.

Did I mention she's fierce and I admire her guts on and off the page?

Please welcome Bernadette Murphy

We sit at our little desks, maybe sipping cafĂ© au lait, staring at a screen. Often, we peer out at a world we hold at arm’s length, maybe through bespectacled eyes, always the outsider, the observer, the one on the periphery. To passersby, we appear the portrait of calm and ease. We’re writers, the nerdiest of nerds, the opposite of the REI adventurer, the wimpiest of wimps.
Or maybe not.
Red Smith famously said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” I tend to agree, and believe that the work of a writer, when done well, is as risky as any extreme sport I can name—and requires the same kind of bravery and courage as other perilous adventures. Maybe even more.
In Maureen Corrigan’s take on the female adventure story in her wonderful book Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading. she argued that women’s stories have always seemed more placid than men’s, but that the docile exterior is simply an illusion. In women’s stories, even the most domestically focused, there is just as much at stake as with any testosterone-rich alpha-male drama. A Jane Austen heroine trying to decide whom to marry has as much on the line as a climber in a Jon Krakauer narrative on Mount Everest. If our heroine makes a wrong choice, the consequences may be as dire in the long run as a fatal error made by a mountaineer. It all comes down to the big questions of life and death. As writers, this is the territory we mine.
Though I’m a nerd through and through, I’ve found myself taking on more physical risk recently and in doing so, I realized that the two territories overlap and feed each other: nerd meets adventure, adventure meets the page.
In essence, I’m discovering a new kind of tolerance for risk in my writing life, like Lance Armstrong building up strong lungs. The more I engage in activities that test my courage, my tenacity, both my emotional and physical strength, the more I build the parallel muscles that writing requires: Truth telling. Rawness. Vulnerability. The possibility of failure. Being willing to be unmasked as the imperfect human I am. Without these qualities, our writing takes us nowhere, has nothing to tell a reader about the human condition.  
This truth came home to me when I wrote the initial essay that would eventually become my most recent book, Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life. I had just left a 25-year marriage and my skin seemed as if it had been flayed in big sheets. My guts felt exposed, so that even the tiniest shift of wind hurt. I tried to write authentically about the experience, but found myself hiding behind trite metaphors and syrupy Hallmark sentiments. The more I attempted to remain safe by concealing my true self (and, I hoped, protecting my kids from my desperate feelings about the divorce), the more hackneyed my writing became.
Meanwhile, my dear friend Emily Rapp was on the cusp of losing her not-yet-three-year-old son Ronan to Tay-Sachs, a child I had held and cuddled and sang to. She wrote about her thundering grief and the day-to-day experience of nursing a child to his eventual death using a kind of incinerating truth I admired deeply and wanted to emulate. (Check out her heart-stopping memoir, The Still Point of the Turning World.) If she could tell the truth amid such tender-at-the-bone circumstances, limn both the heart-stomping moments and the flashes of unheralded joy, what was stopping me?
I tried to follow her lead. When the first essay that displayed my conflicted, damaged self was published, I cowered, nauseated by what I had written, terrified of what people would think of me. I kept having a dream in which Emily was beheaded by the Taliban. She was executed for her honesty—it was that dangerous and that powerful. And if I continued in her path, what would become of me?
In the meantime, though, I’d started taking more risks in the physical realm, spurred on by a need to feel stronger in my life on a day-to-day basis. Facing the death of my father and the pending divorce, I had the sense that, by training myself to take small risks and building on them daily, I might shift my focus away from what scared me toward what made me feel most alive.
I started out running half a lap, walking half a lap at the high school track with a friend from my kids’ school. We did a 5K and then a 10K together. Soon, I learned to ride a motorcycle and took off on a 5,000-mile cross-country trek with another scared-y cat mom like me. I went backpacking and hiking and ran marathons. I moved to French Polynesia for three months to find out who I was when I stopped being who I knew myself to be in Los Angeles. I learned to scuba dive, ski, open-ocean outrigger canoe, mountaineer, rock and ice climb—all in my 50s. And I discovered that I was stronger than I thought I was.
In finding that physical strength, I uncovered the seed of bad-ass-ed-ness that had long been buried in me. Over time, I stopped worrying about what people would think. And, as a result, I was finally able to write the book I had been wanting to.
Looking back, I believe my creative paralysis can be traced to an insidious lie: The idea that risk by definition is negative, a factor to be eliminated whenever possible. Risk infers the possibility that something bad or unwanted may happen. But risk, for writers, is imperative.
When I first started taking physical risks as a path to both emotional and creative courage, my behavior appeared capricious and unpredictable. So I looked into the subject, craving assurance I wasn’t going off the deep end. Through interviews with neuroscientists, researchers, and psychologists, I learned that risk, the very element I’d attempted to isolate myself from, was the substance that was making me feel healthier emotionally, encouraging the wonders of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, and building my self-confidence. I learned that by deliberately engaging new challenges, even as simple as trying a different restaurant or gym routine, I improve my happiness and safeguard my mental and physical health.
Yes, there are biological, gender, and cultural influences that incline some of us to be more enthusiastic about new experiences than others. Still, risk taking is part of our human DNA, and for some of us, downright central to who we are. According to researchers at Stanford University, the human body replaces itself with a largely new set of cells every seven years to 10 years, and some of our most important parts are revamped even more rapidly. Whether it's creating fresh lung cells, shedding skin, sprouting new hair, or making fresh brain connections, the human body is always in a state of constant flux and change.
So too, I venture, is the human psyche—but only with our cooperation.
Be engaging risk, I rediscovered my eagerness and curiosity, ultimately breaking out of my creative straightjacket. Of course, not all risk is beneficial. Impulsive, emotionally driven risk often creates negative outcomes. But positive risk taking, undertaken with forethought and intention, has become fundamental for me.
I now approach life and writing with a new kind of zest and enthusiasm. I feel emotions more keenly than before, even the tender and piercing one—which, I would argue, is some of the riskiest territory on the planet. Writing honestly is much scarier than skydiving, bungee jumping, and any other X-game challenge.
As I see it, writers are extreme athletes in the world of letters. By grappling with risk in the most demanding realm of all—the world of the imagination—we prove ourselves as powerful and fearless in the very best way.

Get to know more about Bernadette at her website.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Summer Reading List with a Twist

I mentioned last week that part of my summer reading list is included in a round-up. What I didn't explain was that I constructed my list with one criteria in mind: books written by someone with whom I once shared a classroom during the MFA program I completed nine years ago, or a writer who followed or preceded me in that same program.

I bought those authors' books when they were released, to support my fellow alumni in their writing lives, and because I genuinely want to read them. Inevitably, the To-Be-Read pile grows worryingly high, the books I thought I'd read soon get buried, and before you know it, I'm hopelessly behind. I suppose this is forever the case for anyone who loves to read and who has to read for work...the want-to-read list must always wait until the have-to-read list is completed, and we hope there's some time and mental energy left over.

The summer reading list idea took hold when I learned there's to be a reunion later this month for the Stonecoast Program MFA (University of Southern Maine). Although I'm still not sure I can get to it, the idea alone was enough to kick off my list. That, and this spring I was leading a memoir writing group at my local library just when the staff was preparing the children's section for the big summer reading extravaganza. 

I remembered back to all the summer reading I did as a child, how much I longed for those long unstructured summer days when I could sit under a tree in the backyard with a pile of library books a foot high. Mom would periodically bring me a glass of lemonade, and ask, "Still reading?" Yup.

Here's the Stonecoast part of my summer list (I'm also sneaking in a few others). Perhaps you'd like to add a few to your TBR pile!

Those I've completed (you can read my reviews over on my Goodreads page):

The Butcher's Daughter by Florence Grende, a memoir of growing up as the child and grandchild of Holocaust survivors. 

A Kinship of Clover by Ellen Meeropol, an unusual novel about plants, ecoterrorism, family, and being different. 

In the Context of Love by Linda K. Sienkiewicz, a novel of family secrets and the always challenging path of love. (Linda's Q/A on that book's path to publication is here.)

Next up: 

Writing Hard Stories by Melanie Brooks, in which she interviews writers who tackled difficult memoirs (also- find Melanie's guest post here).

The Language of Men by Anthony D'Aries, a memoir of father-son love, travel, and discovery. 

Pigs Can't Swim by Helen Peppe, a memoir on growing up the youngest of nine in a hardscrabble Maine woods family. 

Love & Fury by Richard Hoffman (an MFA mentor of mine), a memoir of the extremes of male family relationships.

I just know that ten minutes after I post this, I'll find a couple more Stonecoast student or faculty books in my teetering pile. And I'll move them over to the summer list. And maybe I'll get lucky and get them all read before that other pile/list insists on my attention: the books that I must read before my students are required to in September.

Meanwhile, I'm pouring myself some lemonade and heading outside.

What are you reading this summer?