Saturday, January 18, 2020

Writers Writing in Rooms in Winter. Sign me up.

A few months ago, while completing details related to teaching a three-day memoir workshop at the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway (where I'm at this weekend), I hesitated at the question, Would you like to attend a complimentary master class for faculty, with featured special guest poets Denise Duhamel and Yusef Komunyakaa? 

This would require arriving about five hours earlier than strictly necessary, and on the last full day I'd have to prep for the start of the spring MFA teaching semester, which would begin the morning after my return. Could I really spare three hours? Still, I knew my schedule that day would likely be flexible. Also, the thought of getting out of hectic northern NJ and settling in to a sprawling old world/completely remodeled hotel by the ocean seemed appealing. 

What clinched it was that it occurred to me that I had not sat in the student/writer participant chair for quite a long time. Had not written anything resembling a poem in even longer, but have always loved being in the room with poets, which pushes me to think differently; I usually emerge with something that I later revise into a prose poem, or a piece of flash creative nonfiction (which is how this one got started a few years ago). Or even if not, I leave that kind of room lighter.

Sign me up.

A few things conspired to make me late. (You know those dumb scenes in movies where someone's suitcase explodes, spewing contents all over? Picture this, between my back door and garage, at 7:30 a.m., then me going back in the house, into the attic, to fish out the only remaining suitcase, so old there's no rolling wheels or pull handle.) So when I slid into a chair, the several dozen other writer-teachers were discussing intricacies of one of Komunyakaa's poems and it took a bit to settle in and catch up. But then, for the next two-plus hours, my pen moved, my brain slowed down. I was able to look off into space, and think, muse, wonder. Write. Consider.

Then Komunyakaa -- a Pulitzer Prize recipient and eminent voice -- said a few things that stopped me in place, lit me up with that familiar sense, a combination of intuitive understanding and driving curiosity. 

Here's some of what he shared; I'm paraphrasing here, and of course can't even begin to convey the richness of his speaking voice, his quiet wit alternating with gravitas:

- A poem is a dialogue, a beckoning. It's all about the tone, the music of a phrase.
- Titles should never be a resolution stuck on top of a poem. Titles are an invitation. The poem is not equal to the title.
- I always and only revise a draft of a poem from the bottom up, because that's usually where it's needed. I often write right on past the natural ending because I'm trying to explain everything, and I had not left that door ajar, as you must. I may start out with 150 lines, but the final poem is 40 lines. But that original ending is not usually the real ending. It all comes down to the right confluence of images and connections.
- A prompt can take you anywhere.

The prompt he gave next was to write an ode in praise of oneself, and I wrote about my love/hate relationship with my legs. Like most workshop-generated rough writing, I loved and hated it! What it may one day be, who knows.

After a brown bag lunch, Denise Duhamel asked us to engage with an excerpt from I Remember, a book-length poem by Joe Brainard in which every line or small paragraph begins with "I remember..." and then to write for 15 minutes in the same way. Since an "I remember" list is one of my go-to writing prompts in memoir classes, I sat up straighter in my chair, and wrote, mostly about what I remember of the two years I spent living in Orange County, California in my 20's, riding horses and competing in shows.

Next up was to consider three poems which all end on the word "life", to take one of those ending lines and make it the start of something. I went with (from "A Moment" by Ruth Stone), "you do not want to repeat my life," and wrote of how, at various times in my life, I did or did not want to repeat parts of my own life, my sister's life, my mother's life. 

Too soon, it was time to pick up my folder with my roster of writer participants who would be sitting around my workshop table the next morning. But when I got to my hotel room, before I pulled out all my materials and shifted back into teaching mode to prepare, I pulled on layers of clothing, hat, scarf, and gloves, and struck out to walk the paved cart paths of the golf courses behind the hotel for a chilly but restorative hour (in 34 but "feels like 23" degrees). Walking, and thinking about images, endings, about not explaining so much, about remembering and what we don't remember, and how to write about it all. 

At the opening reception, Peter Murphy, who began the Poetry & Prose Getaway more than two decades ago, reminded the 200-plus in attendance, we are all -- teachers, mentors, workshop leaders, special guest -- just writers together after all, writers writing in rooms, stoking energy and words and more.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Working for a Living, Living Like a Writer, Working with Writing: Not the same as making a living AS a writer. And that's OK.

“I admire that you make a living as a writer.”

A young woman writer said this to me at an event recently.

I’m quick to correct her: No, I don’t.

Because it’s the truth.

I make a living, I tell her, because I’m a writer.

Each January I calculate how much I earned from each of the activities I get paid for and in which percentages in the previous year. I want to understand where the money comes from, where the time goes. (I hate math and I'm bad at it; my husband cannot understand how I was once the statistician for the men's ice hockey team at Syracuse University, but I digress: check out the Percentage Calculator.)

In 2019, some 33 percent of my income came from editing book manuscripts, essays, and book proposals, and acting as a writing coach. The largest amount, 40 percent, was earned by teaching in an online MFA program, and about 23 percent from teaching other writing classes and speaking and leading workshops at conferences, retreats, and libraries. That leaves just 2 percent from book sales and royalties and another 3 percent from paid freelance writing.

That’s it. That last figure is how I did not even get close to making a living as a writer. My income right now comes mostly from helping others with their writing, their writing life. 

This is fine with me, for now. Many years ago, I did in fact make a full time living as a full-time freelance writer—back when there were scads of print magazines and newspapers doling out living wages for articles. But now, my husband (also self-employed) and I have two kids in college, live in one of the most expensive areas of the country (northern NJ, 10 miles from NYC), fund our own health insurance and retirement.

I’m not complaining. I’ve chosen this. Although often it feels like I’m cobbling things together with whatever comes my way, I’m also fairly methodical about seeking opportunities, proposing things, applying for gigs. It’s good that people notice I’m busy, that I work a lot—mostly because that often leads to future work.

I guess that’s what the young woman above was reacting to—my busyness, perhaps combined with getting published enough (in short forms, though often in unpaid literary journals) so that it appears I spend a lot of my time on my own writing. I don’t.

Depending on the cycle of the academic semester, and how much freelance editing/coaching work I have in the house at any one time, my own writing gets done—much like most writers on the planet, I suspect—in between. When there’s a lull, some breathing space. Over holiday breaks and on Sundays and very late at night and occasionally when I need a respite from others’ words and writing problems and editing needs. I like to think this reality helps make me more understanding of the time management, energy, and brain-drain challenges my writing clients and adult MFA students deal with daily.

So, to the dear lovely young writer above—who I might add said this to me at a reading/speaking engagement for my memoir where I was (a) getting paid; (b) trolling for prospective clients; and (c) hopefully selling books: No, I don’t make a living as a writer. But thanks. Right now, it’s enough that I make a living among writers.

Now then. It’s Sunday morning and I have my (abbreviated) work day mapped out: edit four more essays in the manuscript of a client’s essay collection; finish the schedule for the three-day memoir workshop I’m teaching next weekend about 130 miles from home.

Then, maybe, if I’m not too tired, and if my husband is still mainlining playoff football, and if I have anything left in the tank, I want to work on an essay of my own I’ve been tinkering with for three months…

Image, top: Flickr/CreativeCommons - Trending Topics 2019

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Yep, I Still Did it.

Every New Year's Eve, I make two *I Did It Lists* for the year that's ending (one professional, the other personal), I choose my super-secret word for the next year, and I toss out old make-up and expired stuff in the bathroom.

I won't bore you with make-up and cabinet clear-out. But I would like to say a few (hundred) words about the two lists and one word.

Some years ago, I wrote the first "I Did It List" blog post, encouraging myself and other writers to look back with acknowledgement of our writing life accomplishments--no matter how small or un-measurable they may appear to anyone else--and be proud that we...stuck with it, wrote, sent work out, learned something, tried, explored, experimented, revised, rewrote, changed, learned.

Not only the obvious, usual standards of writing accomplishments, like number of pieces published, sold, or finished, agents landed, book deals inked, submissions accepted, freelance checks cashed. Instead, I want to look the other perhaps small yet meaningful things that kept us on course, kept us stimulated, interested, productive, curious writers--at whatever level or frequency our lives, jobs, obligations, hopes, and goals allowed.

If you did it, and it made some difference in your life as a writer, it qualifies for the list.

An *I Did It List* shifts focus to what brought us pleasure and pride, and encourages a pause. To say to ourselves: see, you moved ahead as a writer after all. You stayed in the game. You took a few (maybe baby) steps. You didn't quit. You did something. Probably many things...

Read the rest--and find out the meaning of the word just below, by clicking over to my newsletter here.

Happy New Year and wishing you all much success on all of your creative endeavors in 2020!

Images: Flickr/CreativeCommons