Monday, April 25, 2016

Guest Blogger Julia Roberts on Great Advice from The Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop Conference

More than 18 months ago, Julia Roberts, president of Decoding Creativity, was kind enough to interview me about the writing life for her Storytellers Summit. Julia lived nearby in New Jersey, and while we'd previously crossed paths, before we had a chance to see one another again, she'd switched coasts, and now lives in California. Lucky her! Julia's most recent book is Sex, Lies & Creativity, Gender Differences in Creative Thinking (Difference Press, 2014). When she volunteered to blog about her experience at the Bombeck gathering, I said yes immediately. (More about Julia at the end of her post.)

Please welcome Julia Roberts.

The Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop Conference is a utopia for humor writers that only appears every other year, out of the mist, on the edge of the Great Miami River in Dayton, Ohio (like Brigadoon…) People in the know watch and wait for the announcement, because the conference sells out within hours each time, and only the lucky are admitted. It was reported that one would-be participant hung up on her mother abruptly as soon as admission opened. Another applied with her feet up in stirrups – not waiting for the end of her Pap smear. I got in on the wait list, and wasn’t sure what all the frenzy was about. I almost turned my wait listed position down when an opening became available. But they asked me to speak on the science of creativity – and well, I went. I love Erma Bombeck after all.

Erma died 20 years ago, so younger writers may not know of her wit and power. She was a humor columnist from the mid-1960’s to the early 90’s, carried in 900 newspapers, two times a week, who wrote about family life, housework, and husbands. In a time when every lucky housewife was supposed to be content with a split ranch and an automatic dishwasher, Erma complained… with humor, insight and a huge following… about 30 million readers a week.

What’s not to love? She was fully actualized – knew what was important to her, and set about doing it. From syndicated columnist and 15 bestselling books, to Good Morning America contributor, to ERA activist, and ultimately a position in the Carter administration alongside Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem and others – she left it all out on the field. Erma is famous for saying:
“When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, 'I used everything you gave me.'” – Erma Bombeck
And she was funny. Damn funny. Some of my favorites quips of hers include:
·         The grass is always greener over the septic tank
·         When you look like your passport photo, it’s time to go home.
·         All of us have moments in our lives that test our courage. Taking children into a house with a white carpet is one of them.

Funny was the coin of the realm among the 450 participants I met at the writing workshop held in Erma’s honor a few weeks ago.  Therein lies the utopia, the joy and pleasure of talking about writing with people who like to laugh, love to land a joke, and who are all there to learn and help.

I learned a bunch of cool things – from very cool people – so I’ll share them and see if they’re helpful to you, too. Here are ten little nuggets, paraphrased from the many sessions I attended:
1.      You have to be funny by the fourth line, or you’ve lost them. – Alan Zweibel (early writer for SNL, co-creator of The Garry Shandling Show and more)
Zweibel is a living legend, who shared the story of writing the iconic theme song for the Gary Shandling show on an elevator ride, on the way to lunch. We were all moved that he could share this lovely memory only a couple of weeks after he’d lost his longtime friend.
2.      Use social media like an editor’s desk; let double-digit likes or retweets decide what merits a blogpost. – Elaine Ambrose (author, Menopause Sucks
So many of us write alone these days – no editors to please. Yes, that’s the upside. But we also never get an editor’s input on our stuff – what’s good and what’s crap. So let your social media response give you that editorial perspective. Follow the direction from your many “editors” who respond to your work.
3.      Never tell an agent you’ve just finished your NaNoWriMo novel. – Sorche Elizabeth Fairbank (Fairbank Literary Representation)
All the agents’ heads nodded on this one. I’ve compiled a No-No list from the advice from the many agents at the seminar. To get a copy, go
4.      The audience is in charge now. Getting audience attention is more valuable than the gatekeepers’ money. – Cathryn Michon (writer, director, producer of Muffintop, A Love Story)
Cathryn has brought her little love project Muffintop from a small personal project (starring David Arquette and Marissa Janet Winokur) all the way to Nextflix and Hulu. How? She had strong audience support and advocacy. Social media, baby!
5.      Make a list of people - including celebrities – who might write a “Buy This Book” email on your behalf. – Rachel Ekstrom Courage (Agent, Irene Goodman Agency)          
Even if you don’t know any celebrities, you probably know 100 people who would consider writing this kind of email. Have you asked?
6.      Writing a book is like traveling alone. Sure, you’ll meet great people, but when it’s you and your book, you’re alone on a journey. – Amy Ephron (bestselling author of A Cup of Tea, and One Sunday Morning)
I loved Amy’s tales of life with her sisters Nora and Delia Ephron.
7.      To write a book, you have to train your brain like you’d train a dog, to drop into flow, on command, and write in the small pieces of time you get. – Anna Lefler (Novelist, Preschooled.)
Anna’s presentation was full, FULL of the little things she did to drag her mommy-ass through the first draft of her novel. She even wrote as her two toddlers napped in the car. (A twist on the “don’t make me pull this car over” thing.) But first you have to have some preset ways to ready your brain to follow commands. Like Sit. And Write.
8.      When you’re going to host a dance in your living room, you spread out the furniture. When you write, do a mind dump first – make some space for your creativity. – Kathy Kinney (Actor, Mimi in The Drew Carey Show, co-author of Be the Queen of Your Own Life)
Kathy and Cindy Ratzlaff have been best friends for 40 years and their mutual respect and synchronicity came through on the stage. They’ve helped each other through many creative blocks over the years.
9.      Showbiz is not a business of ideas. It’s a business of relationships. - Joel Madison (writer for Roseanne, The Larry Sanders Show and currently on Judd Apatow HBO series Crashing.)
Doesn’t that just explain everything?
10.   I just read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, where you’re supposed to throw away everything in your house that doesn’t ‘spark joy.’ I’ll save you some time and money. I looked around my house and got started. I threw that book out. – Wendy Liebman (standup comic, semifinalist in NBC’s America’s Got Talent and director/star of Wendy Liebman, Taller on TV DVD.)
Wendy’s talent, connection to the room and humor blew us all away. She’d honed her wit and timing on late night and HBO, but that night she was there, just for us.

The starpower at this conference was tremendous but their collective wattage was actually outshone by the 450 delightful, experienced and openly welcoming participants. I had fascinating and fun conversations, met people I’ll consider new friends and colleagues. I was enlightened, inspired and energized by this conference. 

I’ll be ready to re-up as soon as the conference opens registration for the 2018 Erma Bombeck Writing Workshop – even if I have to pull my arm out of the back of a turkey, or land the plane I’m on so can register before we arrive in our destination city, or leave a meeting with my agent, and the director and producer of the movie being made from my book. With all my new famous friends and their inside advice – hey it could happen.

Note from Lisa: For those who write humor (a lot or occasionally), the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop website is a nice home for funny personal essays. Here's one of mine. Submission guidelines here.

More about our guest blogger: Julia excels in helping writers understand their own creative strengths and struggles and how to hew their creativity to their greatest advantage. She has been coaching since 2004 and is certified by Dr. Martha Beck, among other certifications and degrees. Additional books include Motherhood to Otherhood (Running Press, 2008); and RV There Yet? (Book Surge, 2007). See more about Julia Roberts at

Images: Erma Bombeck-Wikipedia; all others courtesy Julia Roberts

Friday, February 19, 2016

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- February 19, 2016 Edition

> Write It Sideways has been redesigned and is flexing renewed vigor, providing great advice for writers. One new series is "101 of the Best Fiction Writing Tips." Start with Part One.

> At The Rumpus, Sari Botton returns with another installment of her interview column, "Conversations with Writers Braver Than Me," this time with the wonderful Anne Roiphe, on the topic of writing about loved ones (and being the one written about).

> Literary Hub's podcast, A Phone Call From Paul, most recently featured a two-parter with Jhumpa Lahiri. And check out the full list of cool lit folks interviewed in the last few months.

> Allison Williams, at Brevity, nails it with a sobering post about what she learned via a years-long,unsuccessful quest to get a manuscript published. The honesty begins with the title: "Turns Out the Problem is Me."

> Diana Urban offers "98 Book Marketing Ideas" to help authors bump up sales.

> Interesting post at The Missouri Review's blog, by John Nelson on falling into a nonfiction writing niche (in his case, birds), and why he likes it.

> Finally, I meant to pass along this one four weeks ago, but...the title of Adam Grant's article explains it all: "Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate." And he means it. (Here I just thought I was growing more mature lately, taking time to think before acting...but not, it's good old fashioned procrastination, and turns out, it's a good thing!

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Short Answer when Writing a Long Essay

Occasionally, when I'm working on what is revealing itself to be a long and involved piece of nonfiction narrative on a complicated topic, I worry I may never finish it. I get lost in revisions and rewrites, buffeted by new thinking or memories, and wonder if all the tangents and digressions and bits of backstory really matter. Sometimes the meandering route to a long piece includes questioning why I am even writing it in the first place.

What helps at a time like that (besides dark chocolate, wine, and whining), is to move away from the developing piece, and to purposely write a much shorter version of the story, to pare away and get at the center, the heart of the piece. To figure out what's driving it in the first place.

Usually, I'll write a micro essay, sometimes in a very different form (second person, a list essay), or a poem. And sometimes I like what I've done in the abbreviated form enough that I work on it a little bit more, shine it up, and send it out.

That's what happened last fall with a 690 word essay, "Gray," which eventually garnered an honorable mention in the Our Past Loves 2015 contest. It's a small capsule, culled from the still-accumulating pages (and pages and pages) of what will someday be a long look at my teenage relationship with a boy of another race.

Here's a short excerpt from "Gray":

…I want to say Brant's color did not matter, but it did. I was drawn to different, trained on years of family travel where my father emphasized befriending people of different cultures, seizing local experiences, seeing not exactly past color, class, and religion, but rather seeing and not pretending not to see. Coming of age in hotels and exotic locales, my early experience of attraction was not just to to the opposite sex, but to opposites. Brown boys. Jewish. Poor. Black boys.
            Home, though, I was expected to date white, Catholic, Italian, middle- or upper-class boys…

If you'd like to read the rest, hop over to the Our Past Loves site, and scroll down.

Meanwhile, I'm curious, does anyone else ever take detours like this? Write the mini-version?

Monday, February 15, 2016

A Reading and Writing Gift, Courtesy of Contests Not Won and Journals Finally Opened

You don't enter a lot of writing contests, because you're frugal (okay, cheap) and entry fees deplete your meager annual marketing budget, and because you're not competitive by nature. (Perhaps you are convinced you used up your competitive mojo inside the horse show arena years ago, and that once winning a television and later a bicycle was the limit of your blind luck.)

When you do enter a writing contest, you're usually enticed by a theme you're already interested in writing something about (or have already started), or by the allure of publication in a journal or by a press you like. You try not to even consider the prize money (see above, re: not competitive/all luck expired).

Results from the recent Rose Metal Press CNF Chapbook Contest
Still, over the years (okay, decades), you've managed to rack up a few finishes in the tops three, and in competitions that whittle the field down first, occasionally been on finalist lists (most recently, in the Rose Metal Press Creative Nonfiction Chapbook contest). You've always tried, when awaiting contest results, to think of it as no more or less meaningful than a regular submission (okay, you lie to myself).

One of the "consolation prizes" of not winning a contest with an entry fee run by a print journal is often a complimentary subscription. So, you get rejected one way or another (alas, even a finalist finish is still a rejection...), and then at some point later on, an issue of the journal lands in your mailbox with a thud.

Do you read it immediately, eager to delve into the stories and poems and essays by writers who weren't as unlucky as you? Or do you let it sit on your desk or coffee table for days or weeks or months, avoiding the words of others who were luckier (okay, more skilled) than you?

You do both. Depending on mood, available reading time, the phase of the moon, the artwork on the journal cover. 

Then, on a blistering cold winter Sunday, when you really should be working upstairs in your home office, instead you build a roaring fire in the living room (okay, your husband builds it for you; it's Valentine's Day after all and he wants you to be comfy so he can sneak off to watch sports on TV), make yourself a big mug of coffee, cuddle under a quilt, and see what there is to read on the coffee table.

There is the winter issue of The Missouri Review. You open it, scan the table of contents for nonfiction pieces, find two, and read them, at first grudgingly, then with building interest, then hungrily. They are both so good. 

First, the one that intricately and seamlessly (and incongruously, but ingeniously) combines mistakes made in bird watching and the fallibility of eye witness testimony in criminal cases. 

Then, the one about the lousy family dog that keeps eating the children's pets, which seems like it would be a lousy idea for a piece of narrative nonfiction, but paragraph by paragraph convinces you once again that any subject, in the hands of a skilled and honest and witty writer, can become an excellent essay.

You finish your coffee, put the kettle on for tea, grab some cookies, stoke the fire and add more wood. Your husband is still in the family room watching a rerun of his beloved Giants winning the 2008 Super Bowl, but you interrupt, and wave your teenage son over and read them a terrifically funny line from the essay about the horrid dog, and the three of you laugh together.

Then you take your tea back to the living room and read the one about the bad dog all over again, and notice things, so many things. Then you read the one about birding and witnessing again and notice more things. And even though these are not the exact pieces that won the contest you entered many months ago, and instead of feeling as if these other writers are luckier than you, you simply are grateful for the chance to have read them.

And then you find one of those writers on Twitter, and tell her how much you enjoyed the one about her awful dog, and soon, the two of you are tweeting back and forth, and later she says that your praise of her writing has made her week. And suddently your day is made too.

Soon, you feel as if you didn't get a consolation prize at all (okay, maybe a little.) But you eventually go back upstairs to your office and for a brief moment you wish you had a horrible, no good, very bad dog to write about, but then you smile and pull out something you've been working on. And it all starts again. 

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…