Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Stuff My Writing Students Say, Part 19

"Why do I have to outline?"

You don't. Not if you don't want to. But sometimes, you should.

I got this question quite a few times over the last two weeks when I was requiring that my MFA students produce a "crappy outline" for a longish piece of literary journalism they are being asked to write this semester. Many balked.

Probably I would have balked too, when I was a graduate writing student. Then of course, I would have done it anyway, maybe grumbling the whole time.

Here's the thing: I am not a huge fan of the outline. Use one. Don't use one. Whatever works for you. Writers of all stripes and all skill levels can do with or without one, mostly according to personal preference, habit, past experience (good or bad), or complexity of the writing project before them. 

But as an MFA faculty mentor, who in one particular course, in one particular semester, is asking--pushing--writers to write in a form, and with a skill set, that isn't familiar to some, I'm insisting on an outline of some kind.

Those last words are important: an outline of some kind. Of any kind, really.

By this I mean any kind of document/form that helps in organizing one's thoughts. You like the Roman numeral kind we did in high school? Fine. (Though most of us hate that format, and I see very few of those.) 

Maybe an outline is a list. An organized compilation of notes. A linear (or not) progression of ideas. 

One of the best outlines I ever saw from a student was a word collage, fitted onto the shape of the letter W, which for her articulated the double narrative arc she envisioned in the piece. Another outline that rocked was a video montage of the places that would figure into the piece, with background music snippets that spoke to the emotional landscape each location evoked in the writer. Another student wrote what she envisioned to be the beginning sentence of each of about 12 pages. Someone else created a storyboard.

Once committed to producing an outline of some sort, the results often rock. But first, there is usually grumbling, usually connected to the idea that outlining, or advance planning and/or organization of any sort, will stifle or even kill the creative process.

I'm not buying it.

Outlines, organization, planning activities can co-exist with whatever you think of as your unbridled creative urges:  free-writing, meandering on the page, nonlinear drafts, metaphorical or lyrical language, collage or segmented bursts. 

Preparing a *crappy outline* doesn't suggest that you then abandon all the intuitive ways in which you bring a story to the page. It merely asks you to communicate -- mostly to yourself, and sometimes to someone else (usually an editor or instructor) -- some cogent thoughts on what direction you may be heading, what could be included and why, and how you might organize either the material, your time, or your research efforts.
In the end, I believe the best use of an outline is often simply the ACTION of writing it. Something happens in your head as a result of spending the time in thought, in imagining how the piece might develop.
Many times, I've written a crappy outline for a long or complex writing project -- and then put it away, never to truly interact with it again. But the act of doing so had an important effect on my thought process and helped propel me forward with some sense of confidence and curiosity.  
As with many things I am asking of my MFA students this semester, and which writers anywhere might wish to consider: if it makes you uncomfortable as a writer, do it anyway. Writers grow in the discomfort zone.
You can read the other 18 posts in the Stuff My Writing Students Say series here.

Images: Flickr/Creative Commons - npslibrarian; Venn diagram chart - terriem; folders - enoch.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- February 5, 2016 Edition

I've been away from the blog for a bit due to a hectic, rather sad month, so thought I'd get back with an extra long list of links this week. Enjoy!

> Lit Hub asked a bunch of authors who also teach, to share some of the books on their MFA syllabus reading lists.

> I intend to read Paul Lisicky's new memoir The Narrow Door, which has been getting a ton of well-deserved attention, and lest I put it off too long, this beautifully written essay of his is a good reminder to keep the book near the top of the TBR pile.

> In separate Behind The Prose podcasts, essayist Sharisee Tracey discusses how she landed bylines all over the place, and Salon editor Kim Brooks talks about how she selects and edits essays for the website's Life section.

> Nieman Storyboard asked five discriminating writer-readers to weigh in on five well-loved nonfiction pieces, to answer the question, "Why's This So Good?"

> Jane Friedman offers a comprehensive guide to query letters for nonfiction books.

> So, writer-parents, what would you say if your child came home with a handout suggesting that "said" and "asked" were too boring for most dialogue writing? (The sound you hear is fingers on a chalkboard, no?)

> Used bookstores - yay or nay? Do we love shopping in them, but aren't thrilled that they produce no income for authors? Either way, they're making a "comeback," according to The Washington Post.  (I put comeback in quotes because speaking for myself and I believe, many other readers, I've always been able to find one just about anywhere.)

> HippoCamp16: A Conference for Nonfiction Writers, scheduled for August in Lancaster, PA, is offering one fully-paid scholarship.

> Four conference scholarships are up for grabs for (undergraduate or graduate) writing students, to the River Teeth Nonfiction Conference in June, in Ashland, Ohio.

> Department of brag (about my blog): Once again, I'm very pleased to be listed at The Write Life's "100 Best Websites for Writers 2016" (#80), and in the Feedspot's "Top 100 Writing Blogs for Authors" (#86). And, the NOT-brag part: take a look at some of the other great resources listed at one or both places.

> Department of brag (about someone else): My former student Vincent J. Fitzgerald was recently published in Longridge Review, and he's also joined the team of readers for Compose Journal, grappling with the creative nonfiction submissions queue. At Compose, we're just beginning to read (in all genres) for the Fall 2016 issue.

> Finally, Ploughshares has some fun predicting "The Next 11 Literary Scandals."

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Department of Shameless Self-Promotion: Good News!

So, this happened: A Pushcart Prize nomination. 

It happened in early December, and I shouted (loud, apparently, almost directly into my son's ear!) when I got the email from the lovely editors at Front Porch Journal, who nominated my essay, "Your Boyfriend's Back" from their Winter 2015 issue.

But I haven't shouted about it here on the blog yet. 

Truth is, a lot of writers get nominated each year. Literary journals can select up to six pieces each year, and many writers have been nominated in multiple years. Some writers have won several Pushcarts.

(A jaded writer told me that when you get past your "first" Pushcart nomination, you're over it and don't get excited anymore. I don't like jaded writers.)

This is my first time, so why not be a little bit excited?

I am EXCITED, HONORED, PROUD, SURPRISED, HAPPY. All that uppercase stuff. 

Why not?

We write, alone and quietly. We revise, mostly alone, mostly quietly (expletives aside).

We agonize, ponder, submit, usually alone and quietly. 

We are rejected, alone, in silence (expletives aside).

Maybe we give out a little yelp when we get an acceptance. We try to make some noise when our work is published.

So, if getting nominated for an award that recognizes excellence in creative published work, isn't a reason to shout, what is?

I noticed at least a half dozen writers I know announcing their own Pushcart Prize nominations over the last few weeks--and why not! Congratulations to all of us! 

To celebrate, I bought the book that emerged from the previous year's round of Pushcart nominations. Maybe I could have done something flashier to celebrate, like buy that new computer I need, but the book was enough; I think I did it partly to honor those who were selected for the Prizes most recently, and partly as a silly, private little goodwill offering to the writing prize gods. (Then I started to read it, and wanted to hide under a sheet: such stunning work!)

Most of those nominated of course, don't win. That's how any nomination process works. That's okay. Now I finally believe those Oscar folks who say, almost convincingly, "It's an honor just to be nominated." 

Only I'd delete the "just".

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Sound of One Essay Writing Itself

I'm so pleased that my year ended with the publication of an essay that surprised me a bit. Since I wrote it, I've wondered: Where do essays come from?

I've pondered the question before and will again, and the answer is: from many sources. Some I will into existence (when I've accepted an unsought assignment), others emerge from the deleted sentences or passages of another piece of work. Sometimes I have an idea that asserts itself and I must pay attention; sometimes a memory trigger brings me a new idea, unbidden but clear.

I'm convinced, too, that a very few pieces wait, fully formed, lodged deep in my brain, until the right moment. I know only that there's a niggling in the back of my brain about….something…that has to do with….something. Then, a moment of recognition, a swift gravity plunge, from the brain's dusty attic, through my fingers to keyboard to computer screen.

I tell people that good work doesn't really materialize that way. That waiting for The Muse to visit, sprinkling writer fairy dust, is silly. Write, revise, rewrite—that's the ticket. That when someone says a piece "just wrote itself," they're exaggerating, lying, or forgetting the thinking, drafting, revising process.

But not always. These things occasionally do happen—rarely.

I'd thought before of writing something about my elder son's struggles as a small boy with audio issues—more than the three paragraphs I gave it in a long essay eight years ago. But it was a vague, quiet idea, always out-shouted by noisier, more insistent ones. Eventually I "forgot" about it.

Last summer, I saw that Synaethesia Magazine was planning a themed issue on Sound. I made note of it (on my office white board, where I write, and then sometimes erase, possible submission goals). Then I "forgot" about it. Except that I did look at that board every day, wondering, do I have anything to say about sound? My brain was quiet.

Until one morning, something (I can't remember what) clicked: sound…audio…my son… I sat at the keyboard and in about 20 minutes had the essay, written instinctively in second person. Where did it come from? My fingers were only a conduit, connecting nearly subconscious thought with memory, with the screen. (In itself unusual, because I typically start new essays in longhand.)

To check my theory that the piece "wrote itself" (see: exaggerating, lying, forgetting, above), yesterday I looked at my electronic files (I date and number drafts), and the paper file (I print out a lot, and keep my hand-scribbled notes). Only two drafts: the original, and one with very minor revisions.

Here's an excerpt from "Sound and Fury, Signifying"

…You begin to listen. What does a goose's honk sound like from a two-foot high perspective anyway? Why is the neighbor's fishpond pump glugging like that today, when yesterday it glugged a bit more softly, less rhythmically? What drives human beings to seek out (or just endure, when we have the choice) the frightening booms of fireworks, crashing decibels of hard rock concerts, the annoying din of crowded parties in small rooms.
            There are no answers. There is listening therapy, exercises, practice, role-playing,
de-sensitization, speech therapy, exposure therapy, more.
            There is your small child, your little boy, your son, your adolescent, your teenager, your young man, your college student, and he is coping, modifying his behavior, learning to understand his limits, his boundaries, his tolerance….

I hope you'll click over to Synaesthesia Magazine to read the whole piece (as essays go, it's on the short side), and also page through this visually beautiful journal to see what others have to say and show about sound.

With a year of writing looming ahead, I wish I knew for sure that I'd get to watch myself write another "gift from The Muse" essay, but of course I don't. And yet…

Friday, January 1, 2016

Single Words, A New Year, Lentils, and Being Human

Here's the message from my newsletter, sent out on New Year's Eve. Enjoy! (Why the pic of lentils? I learned last night that a pocketful of lentils at midnight on New Year's Eve is good luck for the coming year. I didn't have any pockets. I hope it works even if you dropped them in your purse.)

Hello Friends,
What kind  of a year did you have? If you're like me--human, and an adult--I'll bet it was mixed: laughter and love, tears and sadness. Since the roller coaster is, in fact, normal, one can only be thankful, try to find the horizon.
Isn't that what writers do? Look back, think about life, try to make some kind of crazy sense of it all, write it down.
In that universal way then, 2015 was a good year, exactly in the natural human rhythm, the universe pushing and pulling.
Work: I saw a lot of my writing published, spoke at conferences, got nominated for a nifty award. Family: the extended clan welcomed three new babies, a beloved aunt turned 100, a son grew Eagle wings.
Highs, and huzzah.
There were lows, certainly. The "best" part of that was having people to link arms with. We cried, wiped tears, cracked inappropriate jokes.
I have my new secret word of inspiration all picked out for 2016. Do you?
It may seem like a silly or inconsequential thing, choosing a single, simple word. Though writers know: a word--well, that is power. Some days, it is my secret year-long word that lifts me, reminds me the coaster will climb again.
I hope, as you welcome 2016, that your roller coaster car is cranking skyward. That when it races to earth, someone is next to you, arms strongly linked.
Next year, let's all be human together.

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Top 20 Writing Posts of 2015

Here are the top 20 posts on the blog from 2015, based on reader traffic. Among them once again are fabulous guest bloggers and author interviews. I'm in their debt for offering excellent advice to other writers, and sharing personal stories of their writing lives. (The list doesn't include any of the popular, regularly appearing Friday Fridge Clean-Out posts, rich in writer resource links. Find them here.)

Thanks for reading!

Sandra Hurtes on How a Writer Stays Committed With No Promise of Success 

Laraine Herring on The Baby Story Monkey 


Anna Whiston-Donaldson on a Paperback Release after the Hardcover

Listen In: Storytellers Summit Presents 20+ Creative Conversations (including little ole me)  

Publication Venues Everywhere, How's a Writer to Choose? 

Guest Blogger Lisa Alber on Hope After (Traditional Publishing) Rejection 

Kate Walter on Finding the Narrative Arc for Your Memoir  

Vincent J. Fitzgerald on That Writing Thing I Always Wanted to Do  

Linda Sienkiewicz* on her Debut Novel and the Twisty Road That Got Her There  

The Mother's Day Essay I Didn't Write  

Adam Boretz on BookLife & PW Select Editor  

My Husband and I Didn't Have a "Meet-Cute" Moment. So of course, I wrote about it.  

Where Essays Begin: Sudden news, old friend, odd lyrics, far away 

Linda K Sienkiewicz* on Lessons from AWP on Book Promotion for Anxious Authors 

Lisa Lenzo on her short story collection, Strange Love 

Of Writing Goals, Hope, the Old Year, a New Year, and One Word  

Lucy Ferriss on Why She Had to Learn to Write Badly 

*Both of my friend Linda Sienkiewicz's 2015 guest posts are on the list, which means you probably want to be reading her blog too!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- December 11, 2015 Edition

> Check out what the Virginia Quarterly Review is doing to combine images and essay writing with #VQRtruestory on their Instagram feed.

> Speaking of Instagram, Tee Morris and Pip Ballantine offer five key tips on how authors can use the photo sharing app to build platform and audience.

> Terrific (7-minute) video at The Atlantic -- George Saunders: On Story. (Samples: Don't over-manage your material. Do: Only have a bit of an idea what the story is when you start. Bonus: When you pay attention to the sentence that bothers "your better nature rises up." Finally: "Revision is an act of love in progress.") I love this guy!

> The title of this post alone grabs me: "How to be more creative with help from neuroscience and Margaret Atwood." (via The Belonging Blog)

> Seattle (where else?) is the site of Amazon's first brick-and-mortar bookstore.

> Back online...ever wonder how online retailers make a profit when the price of a book is only pennies? The New York Times Magazine explains it all.

> Here's a round-up of links to posts about the NonFiction Now conference held back in October.

> Bragging corner: Compelling second-person essay, about interracial friendship
 over at Full Grown People by my frequent writing coaching client Patrice Gopo.

> Not new, but I really love this list post by Leslea Newman, at Bold Strokes Books Authors' Blog, on how to forge a long term life as a writer.

Have a great weekend!

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons -- 1950sUnlimited

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Ready, Set, SIX. I had my say in six. Your turn.

When you work at home a lot, you develop small strategies for mental breaks, often something that doesn't involve writing, typing, or even much thinking. Grabbing the (postal) mail. Tossing in a load of laundry. Marinating the chicken for dinner. Taking a walk.

But sometimes the break I need is just some other form of the thing I do all the time—a writing break that's also, in its own lovely, distracting way—a wee bit of writing.

Then I head to Six Word Memoirs, where anyone can post their own six words on just about anything, or if you're game, on their current topic, contest, or theme – baseball, work, mistakes…hundreds of others. I guess I'm there frequently enough that a couple of years ago, I was once the site's featured member of the week.

Last winter apparently (honestly, I forgot!), one Six Word theme was Advice. And I had some, which came via my mother. And now Mom's advice to me, in six simple words, has made its way onto the page. Page 75 to be exact. 

Larry Smith, the editor and brains behind Six Words, has compiled his latest collection of "Sixes," published yesterday, The Best Advice inSix Words: Writers Famous and Obscure on Love, Sex, Money, Friendship, Family,Work, and Much More (St. Martin's Press).

The lovely little book—by the way, a great size, shape, and price for holiday gifts (or okay, bathroom reading)—offers advice from 1000 (!) people, including folks like Harlan Coben, Mark Bitman, Susan Orlean, Elizabeth Gilbert. Clearly they're part of the "Famous" and I'm the "Obscure." But hey, I do share the same page with Weird Al Yankovic and Brian Lehrer.

In the past, I've even made an assignment out of writing Sixes in my undergraduate and teen creative nonfiction classes, and adult writing workshops: a break that refreshes.

Want to give it a try?  Want to get the book free? Write your own six words on…Writing? Autumn? Early holiday retailing? On…well, anything. Anything at all.

Post a Six in comments below OR tweet a Six and be sure to tag me @LisaRomeo (and if you like, also tag @SixWords) OR if you're reading this on Facebook, put your six in a FB comment under my post, by midnight, Sunday, November 22. Then a random *winner* will get a freebie book from the lovely folks at Six Words.

Let the sixing begin…