Here I blog about writing, editing, reading, books, submissions, freelancing, getting published (and rejected), journalism, revisions, life after the MFA, teaching writing, and living the writer's life. Welcome. BUT -- if you are a writer: Write first, read blogs second.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Guest Blogger C. Hope Clark on Why Writing What You Know Doesn’t Mean You Know How to Write

Like many writers, I imagine, I get several newsletters intended to help me write and market work. Some I barely read. Others I keep in a separate, long term file on my computer. I may not read them the day they arrive, but these are the ones I want on hand, and comb them for opportunities and insight. C. Hope Clark's Funds for Writers is one of these. I've found many excellent tips in her pages, and she's impressed me as one of the most sincere, generous, and supportive folks in the writing world.
This week, Hope's newest novel, Murder on Edisto (Bell Bridge Books) debuts, joining her previous series, the Carolina Slade Mysteries. It's set in Edisto Beach, South Carolina, a place she considers her second home.  Hope is still editor of FundsforWriters, which has a seemingly perennial place on Writer’s Digest Books' 101 Best Websites for Writers. Her newsletters reach 40,000 readers.

Please welcome C. Hope Clark

When I worked for the federal government, I was once offered a bribe. As required, I called in the badges and guns, and the agents roped me into the investigation as the Cooperating Individual (CI).  Yet even after the hidden recorders, cameras, and memorized scripts, we never charged the guy since he could not produce the money. However, as the case dragged on, I became friends with one of the agents. Once the case was shelved, we dated. A couple years later, we married. Okay. Go ahead and say it. “Awww, what a great story! You ought to write a book.” Heck, why not, right?
Eight years later, frustrated at my federal job and eager to write seriously, I thought, “Why not give that novel a try?” With a politician boss, I’d spun words for years. If I could write government fiction, how hard could it be to write mystery fiction? Especially when the story was grounded in my own real-life case.

            As it turned out, harder than I thought. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

            After two years, I finished a manuscript. My mother was friends with Fern Michaels (yes, THAT Fern Michaels, the 50-time New York Times best-selling author with a kajillion copies of mysteries and thrillers in print). Fern offered to pass the manuscript on to an agent, which I later recognized was probably a polite gesture directed at my mother. The agent wrote back with a polite refusal. I still have the note Fern sent afterwards, commending me on completing the novel, and how I ought to be proud at that achievement in itself.


            Throwing the hard-copy manuscript on a closet shelf, I redirected myself to commercial nonfiction, to better use my natural left brain talents. Over the next four years, my efforts turned into clips, with freelance articles in both Writer’s Digest and The Writer Magazine, and eventually I founded the newsletter, FundsforWriters, in which I used my government knowledge to define myself.  Then a local bookstore owner asked me to pick up a mystery author from her hotel and bring her to a book signing at the shop.

I was gobsmacked, meeting someone who’d accomplished what I’d once dreamed of;  as was the waiter who stumbled all over himself asking for her autograph on his copy of her latest that he’d run down and purchased between our main course and dessert. Then once the doting subsided, the author asked what I wrote. I told her of my freelance work.

“No,” she said. “What do you write for you?”

“Oh,” I replied, a bit red-faced. “I once wrote this mystery. But it didn’t go anywhere.”

She stared at me with an all-knowing smile. “Pull it out,” she said. “Otherwise in ten or twenty years you’ll kick yourself for not giving it another try.”

So I went home that evening and gingerly retrieved the manuscript box. I was struck dumb on the first page. “Oh my God, this sucks!”

The story was still decent, but it seems that after four years of freelancing, I’d learned to recognize marginal writing.

Re-energized, I saved the outline and tossed the manuscript, toiling long and hard with rewrites, contest entries, and agent and publisher queries. After two years, the effort paid off. I’ve published four mysteries now, but Lowcountry Bribe (Bell Bridge Books, 2012)  will remain near and dear to me forever. The book everyone said I ought to write, had finally been written.

I recall my first reading at a conference, when Lowcountry Bribe was two months’ published. Four of us read: a young adult author, a poet, and a literary review editor, and I went last. Heart hammering, I selected a scene where the bribe was offered, and the protagonist comes face to face with the antagonist, each reading the other’s mind about what their back and forth innuendo really meant: a crooked deal.

Halfway through, I sensed the room go silent, people standing still around the hors d’ oeuvres table. But I read on, nervous. Finally, hands still white-knuckled on the book, I finished. The room erupted in applause.

The literary review editor approached me as I stepped down from the stage. “That was excellent,” he said.

Still jittery, I smiled and thanked him. “This is my first published fiction,” I said, clutching my book. “I’ve always written commercially.”

He shook his head with a grin. “Doesn’t matter what you’ve written,” he said. “You’ve put in the time, and it shows in your work. That was good.”
           Tears filled my eyes as he turned away. The years in between my first and second manuscripts, while I hadn’t written mysteries, I had indeed kept writing. And unexpectedly I’d grown in the process, every word a step up the ladder.

Writing what you know is important, but it’s only a piece of the puzzle. Knowing how to write it means so much more, and sometimes that only comes with putting one word in front of the other. To this day, I write every day to oil the machine, because when the next great idea comes along, I want to be primed, warmed up, and ready to go.

Note from Lisa: Hope will be stopping by the blog for several days to answer questions via comments. She's also giving away a signed copy of any one of her books (including Murder on Edisto) to one random blog reader; leave your comment before midnight on Saturday, October 11.

Connect with Hope on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, September 26, 2014 Edition

> Monica Byrne, a published novelist and produced playwright, discussed her submission, rejection, and acceptance stats in a brief Washington Post article, shared her spreadsheet, and offered some perspective: "That means I got 32 rejections for every acceptance."

> A bonanza of articles, essays, lists and more, all about the MFA, at Publisher's Weekly.

> Then, from the Ploughshares blog, there's an "MFA for the Rest of Us" -- a semester-by-semester list of oh-so-aptly-named "courses". Ahem.

> Wired magazine (and science) explains some of the reasons why we can't catch typos, why those who can type without looking at the keys know they've made a mistake before even looking at the screen, and other cool stuff.

> What's everybody reading? I like finding out, in the Books by the Bed section of the We Wanted to be Writers site.

> Many literary journals and small literary presses are closed to submissions over the summer, and re-open in early fall. Lists of some are posted here and here and here and here.

> Check out the first issue of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. 

> A new anthology from Creative Nonfiction magazine, marking 20 years, "True Stories, Well Told," will soon be available for pre-order. If you teach, you may be able to request a desk copy now.

> Finally, leave it to Powell's Books to graphically explain why physical books are best.

Have a great weekend!

Image by Eric Crowley vie Flickr/Creative Commons

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Guest Blogger Donna Baier Stein on Rejection, Writers of a Certain Age, and the Persistence of Hope

One of the many perks of working with The Writers Circle (a wonderful regional organization in northern New Jersey) was finding new colleagues among my fellow teachers. That includes Donna Baier Stein, who guides writers in the art of the short story. Donna's work has appeared (among other places) in Prairie Schooner, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Puerto del Sol. She was a founding poetry editor at Bellevue Literary Review and now publishes Tiferet Journal. Donna has been honored with three Pushcart nominations and prizes from Kansas Quarterly and Florida Review.

Please welcome Donna Baier Stein 

There are scores of encouraging stories about writers who didn’t find success easily … or even early.

Frank McCourt published Angela’s Ashes at age 64, and Booker Prize winner Penelope Fitzgerald published her first novel at age 61. Belva Plain, a bestselling author from right here in New Jersey, didn’t publish her first novel until she was a 63-year-old widow. She went on to publish 21 novels that were on the New York Times bestseller list, and more than 30 million copies of those books were in print at her death at age 95.

I find these statistics encouraging. Do you? Have you ever looked at a published author’s age and thought, “Oh, I still have time?” I know I have. Though as the years, the publications and the rejections have added up, I find myself doing that less. I am far more interested in my own trajectory than seeing how it compares to someone else’s.  

My first story collection, Sympathetic People (Serving House Books),  was published in 2013, when I was 62, and received some blush-worthy blurbs ("Donna Baier Stein is a discovery," according to C. Michael Curtis, fiction editor of The Atlantic, and New York Times bestselling novelist Caroline Leavitt called the book, "…a brilliantly edgy collection of stories that gets under your skin as even as it illuminates love, lust - and everything in between."). Most of the stories in this book were written and published in literary magazines in the 1980s, and an early version of the manuscript was a finalist in the Iowa Fiction Awards.  Still, many, many years passed without my seeing it in book form.

Why? Because I didn’t make writing a priority. Over the previous three decades, I had a thriving career as a copywriter, two children, a busy husband. I undertook several major moves. At times, I let myself be both distracted and insecure. There were very few days devoted only to creative writing. More often, I squeezed extra hours in early in the morning while my children slept and before copywriting client demands filled the work day. When I turned 40, I put my copywriting work aside for a year to earn an MFA from Johns Hopkins University, where I studied with a long-time writing hero of mine, John Barth. My thesis was a very early version of Sympathetic People.

Instead of continuing to pursue publication of that collection, I wrote and published new stories and essays. I published a poetry chapbook. I wrote a novel that won the PEN/New England Discovery Award for Fiction and had a top agent from William Morris try to sell that book. "Close but no cigar," we were told by 17 New York publishers.

I sometimes felt like giving up but somehow never did. I sent the collection out to about five more publishers and finally, to my great delight, Serving House Books offered publication. I was thrilled!

Having my story collection finally in book form gave me a nice injection of can-do confidence. So I resurrected the novel I’d been working on for years and rewrote it almost from scratch. And started a new collection of stories based on Thomas Hart Benton paintings. 

Sometimes, hopelessness about “being too old” or “not good enough” still takes hold. What we as writers try to do – to create something from nothing, to have our insides be heard – is hard. I’ve come to think that occasional hopelessness may just be part of the creative package.

So, how do you switch hopelessness to hope? Here's what I do.

Talk to other writers, and gain perspective.   I know a lot of “famous” writers. And every single one of them has a tale of woe to tell about some stage of their publication history. No one is immune from that.

Discover what you need when you want to stop. For me, physical exercise and meditation are both big helps. So is finally learning that first drafts can be, as Hemingway said, “*&($.” Getting anything on the page is a step in the right direction.

Accept that sometimes a step back takes you forward.  Every time I’ve gone through a cycle of hopelessness, I have come out the other side a better writer. This is a fact. Sometimes we have to trust that growth occurs even during fallow periods. And keep on writing.

At a commencement speech at Duke University in 2008, author Barbara Kingsolver said, “The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. The most you can do is live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides."

I love this image, this idea that hope itself is a space in which we can live, no matter what our age, no matter what our publication history. Writers need hope. Very few of us are overnight successes. And the only thing to do in the face of rejection letters and passing years is find that hallway of hope, set up your computer or yellow pad, and write.

Notes from Lisa: Donna would like to send one blog reader a complimentary copy of her short story collection. Simply leave a comment by end of day on Friday, Sept. 26, and we'll choose one winner at random (U.S. postal addresses only).

New Jersey residents can see Donna read from her collection at the Bernardsville Public Library on Tuesday, September 23, at 7 pm.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Guest Blogger Judy Labensohn on Why She's Writing a Hybrid Memoir

One of my occasional freelance assignments is with Brain, Child magazine, editing personal essays and short stories. That's how my path first crossed with Judy Labensohn, who wrote a moving and clear-eyed essay about spending time in her daughter's shoes before sending her off to military service. 

Judy is founder of The Writing Gym and The Writing Pad in Israel, venues for local residents, tourists, and visiting writers who write in English. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in Kenyon Review, Kenyon Review Online, Southwest Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Creative Nonfiction, among others. She is a 2013 Pushcart Prize nominee. Judy is now at work on the final stages of The Mourning After: A Hybrid Memoir. 

Please welcome Judy Labensohn.

I'm writing a hybrid memoir because the continent of the inner life is a multifarious entity and demands multifarious means of expression. My memoir is a soul quest.

I'm writing a hybrid memoir because a fragmented self seeking salvation needs a fragmented genre.

I'm writing a hybrid memoir because the narrative "voice of experience," understanding, and maturity--while important, and one I use--bores me for the full length of a book. Like all people, I house a cacophony of voices. Why limit the memoir to one?

I'm writing a hybrid memoir because The Narrative I, like the real, physical I, demands many genres and types of texts and written documents to express the complexity, richness, and variability of the human condition.

I'm writing a hybrid memoir because I am a hybrid: part American, part Israeli, part Jewish, part nonbeliever, happy/ sad, serious/ funny, strong/weak--and I have come to learn that dualism confines.

I'm writing a hybrid memoir because between the front cover and the back cover a memoir can do anything. It can contain legal documents, fictional speculations, letters sent to real people, unsent letters to imaginary people, letters from real people, newspaper articles, short fiction, newspaper columns, revised versions of remembered scenes, revisions of revised versions of remembered scenes, a mother's letter, Biblical quotes, etc. etc. etc. 

I'm writing a hybrid memoir because finding the appropriate structure in which to fit all the pieces is a challenge, and fun.

The hybrid memoir is like a soup into which all the genres and categories of texts are thrown. The pieces blend together to communicate what it's like to lose a baby brother in Cleveland, Ohio, 1951 during National Brotherhood Week in a family where nobody is licensed to speak of death, so a certified rabbi comes to the house and says, Your brother died. Now repeat after me. The Lord is my shepherd.

The hybrid memoir is like a cholent—a big pot into which you throw the family secrets surrounding this death. The pot simmers not for a day, like a real cholent, but for years. After twenty, forty, sixty years you're still eating this burnt stew, hoping soon you will reach the bottom, sensing there is no bottom.

The fragmented memoir may mirror our fragmented lives in the 21st century, as David Shields suggests in Reality Hunger: A Manifesto or it may be a cop-out for writers who have shpilkes and cannot sit still for eight hours a day in order to write one long narrative with a mature understanding voice.

The hybrid memoir may be the literary equivalent of a collage writ large and I like collages. 

For sure the hybrid memoir is an oxymoron because, as Patricia Hampl, Michael Steinberg and many others agree, memoir itself is a mongrel, hybrid form.

The only person for whom the designation is critical is the worker at Barnes and Noble who asks her boss: Where should I shelve this book? Biography? Nonfiction? Fiction? Essays?  
Besides writing tips, Judy serves up fresh
figs and other fruit at
The Writing Pad.

To quote Ben Marcus: "Once upon a time there will be readers who won't care what imaginative writing is called and will read it for its passion, its force of intellect and for its formal originality." ("The Genre Artist," Believer Magazine, July, 2003)

I'm writing a hybrid memoir because it feels like the most honest, truthful and accurate way to deal with unresolved childhood grief and to share this process with the reader, whose soul is, no doubt, also confused, as described in  W.S. Merwin's "To the Soul":

Is anyone there
if so
are you real
either way are you
one or several
if the latter
are you all at once
or do you
take turns not answering...(see the full poem here)

Note from Lisa:  Judy will be stopping by here over the next week, to answer any questions left in the comments section - so ask!

Visit Judy at Write in Israel.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Guest Blogger Patrice Gopo on a Writing Conference, a College Roommate, an Unplanned Weekend Away

My work as a writing coach and online Boot Camp wrangler brings me so much pleasure, especially when writers such as Patrice Gopo make their way to my inbox, telephone, and writing life. We spent a chunk of time this past winter working through several of Patrice's already-good essay drafts. Aside from her creative skills, and intuitive sense of where personal stories lie, I was impressed by two things I don’t always see in combination: Patrice had plenty of ideas that hinge on personal experience but immediately reveal a universal connection and she has the patience to develop them one at a time, slowly. It didn’t surprise me when, after deep revisions and a willingness to experiment with form and structure, she placed a segmented essay about race, culture, and marriage in Rock and Sling online.
            The child of Jamaican immigrants, Patrice was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. Other essays have appeared in Literary Mama, Relief, Not Somewhere Else But Here: A Contemporary Anthology of Women and Place, and one was heard on Charlotte, North Carolina’s NPR Station WFAE.  She lives with her husband, and their two daughters in North Carolina.

Please welcome Patrice Gopo  

                       I very nearly didn't attend this year’s Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference.

            Back in March, while flipping through the then-current issue of Creative Nonfiction magazine, I saw an ad for the Memorial Day weekend conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I recognized the address--mere blocks from my college roommate’s front door.  

            You should go. It’s so close to you, I typed below the link I emailed her. Like me, she's a novice writer, and I thought she might enjoy the event. That evening my phone rang. Sherae wasted no time:  “And you should come too, Patrice.”

            Me, attend? Of course, the conference sounded great with a list of notable speakers including Dinty W. Moore and Lee Gutkind, sessions devoted to publishing, a day of craft talks, and the opportunity to participate in a writing workshop. But a writing conference was not part of my plan in 2014, for many reasons including my new baby, obligations I had at home in Charlotte, and on and on and on.

            “You should come,” she said again, with an urgency that began to thaw all my important reasons for declining.  The baby? Well she was newish, not new. The obligations? Right away, my husband volunteered to take care of everything demanding my attention. In the span of a day, I went from hoping my good friend would attend so I could vicariously glean something from her to registering myself for the conference. Within the next week or so, I had booked my ticket to Pittsburgh, Sherae had also registered, and we were discussing our 3000 words (or less) manuscripts to submit for the Sunday writing workshop.

            At this point I should mention that if you want a conference with slick pre-printed name badges, multiple tracks, branded conference bags, and free pens, you might look elsewhere. However, if you long for an intimate and relaxed setting with about 75 or so people on a university campus, strong craft talks, great opportunities to mingle with participants and speakers, and an environment that welcomes all levels of writers, then might I suggest the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference.

            The first day tackled the world of modern publishing, while the schedule devoted the second day to discussion of CNF craft. Each day was drenched in memorable lines and ideas. Some of my favorite thoughts—paraphrased—along with my personal take-away, included these

From Lee Gutkind’s “What is Creative Nonfiction?” session: The brain is wired for story. Story goes way beyond my story but goes into other people’s stories. Strong creative nonfiction explores the intersection of both public and personal stories.
My Personal Application: I default to writing personal stories. I need to think of how those stories connect with larger public stories.

From Dinty W. Moore’s “Writing it Short” session: Why jump first into a book? Nothing ever works out the first few times. You could spend 20 years of your life attempting a couple of books that may or may not work. Or, you could spend a few years of your life attempting a few essays. Essays are an excellent way to perfect the craft.
My Personal Application: I can stop lying about the book I tell people I'm “working on" in order to appear to be a legitimate writer. I enjoy writing essays, and they provide me with a great opportunity to improve. So why not press into that, continue to take steps to become better, and see how life unfolds?

From Jane Bernstein’s “Memoir” session: You are writing to discover.
My Personal Application: It’s okay (perhaps even good) if I don’t know the direction an essay is headed when I scrawl the beginning words of a first draft.

            The final day brought my writing workshop led by Dinty W. Moore, editor of
Brevity, the online journal of brief CNF. I came to the conference proud that I had pushed my essay as far as I could without additional input. However, I knew something was missing, something I couldn’t quite identify.  Six other workshop participants and I gathered around a large table in search of insight and a nudge of direction.

            The workshop did not disappoint. Dinty divided the group’s essays into several piles. Each pile of essays struggled with similar problems such as scene, point-of-view, or—in my case—theme. I appreciated Dinty’s approach; each pile enabled us to see different examples of the same problem. Dinty pointed out that my essay, along with several others, suffered because it lacked, as he put it, “the invisible magnetic river.” My essay still had yet to sort out its point.

            In my piece, I used shopping malls as an extended metaphor. Dinty glanced at me as he flipped through my marked up essay and said, “Too much about malls. Not enough Patrice. I don't think you need so much about malls to make your metaphorical points. Unless you want to submit this to a magazine about malls.”

            Um, no.

            Thankfully, Dinty and the other workshop participants provided me with some great ideas about how to sculpt my piece including areas I need to expand and places where I need to chisel away. Cutting often makes me sad since I end up losing some of my favorite parts; convinced Dinty had overlooked some of my gorgeous, sweeping prose, I asked his opinion about a few sections—sections about malls if you must know—I had clenched my fists around.

            “Kill your darlings,” he replied with a not quite ruthless expression.

            I knew he would say that. I also knew he was right.

            One final thought I've had is how attending the conference with a friend made the event that much more enjoyable and useful. Sherae and I spent our evenings debriefing and processing the day's events. As a result of our conversations, I know I gained even greater perspective and insight into the various talks.

            Returning home after three days immersed with other writers who shared my passion for the genre, I had renewed energy for edits to my manuscript and the creation of new work. While at first I'd had a list of reasons why I shouldn’t attend, I’m thankful for voices—and good friends—who suggested otherwise. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Beware of what you wish for. (And what you don't.) -- My Teaching Writing Update.

For the past seven years, I've tried to keep this blog filled with tips, advice, and resources that will help writers. For the past few months I've relied heavily on some generous guest post contributors and interview subjects (as well as link round-ups) to do the job. My own contributions dwindled because I was extra-busy. Thanks, readers, for supporting the guest bloggers, and sticking around! At first my busy-ness was all about writing, teaching, and editing in fairly equal portions. But lately, that shifted. I hope you'll indulge me a bit while I explain. Then, the plan is to get back to a more regular posting schedule in September. - Lisa

During my MFA program, I frequently thought (and sometimes said), oh, I'll never teach.

Toward the end of those two years, a mentor who knew me well predicted, I think you are going to teach. It's clear you want to help other writers.

"Nah," I said. 

Three months later, a local library hired me to teach an adult memoir class and another in freelancing. Within six months, I was teaching creative nonfiction online via small private classes I'd developed. Within 15 months, I was teaching in the continuing education writing program at Rutgers University, and two years after that, I was asked to teach memoir and personal essay writing for a lovely, multiple-location regional organization, The Writers Circle.

In between, I created the *I Should Be Writing!* Boot Camp for writers in any genre (it's now on-demand solo course). Along the way, I developed a monthly coaching option, which brings so many wonderful writers my way.

Now, I'm setting out on new teaching adventures. And, I've been thinking of Barbara Hurd, who like all terrific mentors, sometimes say what their students don't necessarily want to hear. I've also come to understand the power of the MFA community one develops, too.

When Suzanne Strempek Shea, a faculty member from the Stonecoast MFA program I completed, called me about 20 months ago to gauge my interest in joining the faculty of a new all-online, all-nonfiction MFA program in the planning stages for Bay Path College (now Bay Path University), I didn't hesitate. It sounded perfect. 

I said yes, then tried to put it in the back of my mind, tried to temper my excitement. After all, it was nearly two years away, and needed all kinds of approvals and certifications before it could (would?) launch.  

A few days ago—after a summer of syllabus revision, training in the online course management system, and wonderful conference calls with the director and other faculty—I welcomed some 20 students into the two classes I'm teaching in that vibrant new MFA program.

Once the students began checking in, I realized that I was right where I wanted to be.

But there's more to the teaching story.

In April of this year, the Rutgers program was shut down; sad, but I'd had a good run there.

I live about one mile from Montclair State University. I've used the library there, attended literary events there. I've signed my kids up for programs there, our family has seen plays and concerts and sporting events on campus. And two years ago, I applied for a teaching job there. I didn't get it.

What I did get – about a month ago – was a call from the writing program director: Was I interested in teaching one section of an undergraduate elective creative nonfiction writing class? 

My plate seemed full already. But then, isn't it always? 

I was a kid who always loved school, longed for the smell of fresh pencils and the feel of new notebook pages. As an undergraduate college student, I jammed my schedule with as many different kinds of writing and literature classes as I could. I remember the feeling of being in those classrooms. I love September and the idea of a new semester. (And I'll be they one day unwittingly contribute to my Stuff My Writing Students Say series!)

So next week, I'll be in that classroom at MSU. I'll be online with my Bay Path students every day. I'll be writing. I'll be sending out the memoir. I'll be editing, and prepping for the fall session at The Writers Circle, and helping to get out the fall issue of Compose Journal.

It's a lot.

It's a little bit of everything I ever and never wished for, and clearly need.

Wish me luck.

Images: Flickr/Creative Commons - Old time teachers desk, Todd Petrie; Scrabble tiles, Denise Krebs; Notebooks, Kristen Nador

Friday, August 1, 2014

Friday Fridge Clean-out: Links for Writers, August 1, 2014 Edition

Image by Eric Crowley vie Flickr/Creative Commons
> At Writer Unboxed, Karen Gillespie, on what did and didn't happen when her essay got into the opinion pages at the New York Times.

> How could I not be impressed with a 14-year-old one-day novelist who writes a clever and helpful blog about writing titled Every Stinkin' Page?

> These 11 tips for writing a scene, from John August, originally intended for screenwriters, are helpful for all writers.

> LitReactor's primer on punctuation when writing dialogue, is a handy and comprehensive reference.

> Chuck Wendig with 25 pointers on word choice (warning: his own word choices are often--what's the right word? how about, naughty?)

> Sometimes, you get a rejection and feel sure no one even read your submission. Recently, one literary journal admitted as much (sorry, no time to read, but here's your rejection anyway!). Naturally, there was unhappy chatter there was a dust-up, a (sort of) defense, an analysis of the fallout

> Student brag box: Patrice Gopo has a lovely piece of segmented nonfiction prose in Rock and Sling. I hope you enjoy reading Marking the Color Trail (weddings, race, red dresses, crossing cultures, young love, Africa, India, and more!)

> Finally, wouldn't these make great (ahem) book titles?

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Author Interview: Sue William Silverman, on her new memoir, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew

First, I read and admired Sue William Silverman's work. Then I listened to, and learned from her at an AWP panel. Read some more of her nonfiction. Met her briefly at another conference. Read more. Next, I interviewed Sue here on the blog about her craft book, Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir, which I've recommended to many students. That interview remains one of the most heavily trafficked posts here. I'm delighted in so many ways to have Sue back, this time talking about her new book from the University of Nebraska Press.

Please welcome Sue William Silverman.

LR. So – The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew. I'm guessing you've gotten a number of raised eyebrow questions about that subtitle. To me, the first two essays perfectly explain it. Subtitles do seem especially important in memoir. How did you come to this subtitle?  Was it long before publication? During editing? A collaboration with the publisher? 

SWS. Oh, that subtitle! The main reaction I get is a laugh, which I love. The book, in part, is supposed to be funny – or, well, ironic. I wanted a subtitle that would convey the tone of the book, not just the subject matter.

I came up with the subtitle long before I sent the book to the publisher. Initially, there was another one (I can’t remember what), but it didn’t quite fit. So my partner Marc and I brainstormed subtitles one day, and this one immediately rose to the top of the list.

LR. Since this is a memoir-in-essays (my favorite kind of nonfiction), I will ask the question I ask every writer who has assembled such a book. Since some of the essays were published in journals over a multi-year span, at what point did you realize you had a book percolating?  That the threads between different essays were strong enough to collect them?

SWS. Initially, I had no idea I was writing a book. I had already published two memoirs, a book on craft, and a poetry collection, so I wanted to write something I’d never tried before: stand-alone essays. I was about two years into this essay-writing business when it hit me that, in one form or another, all the essays were about how, growing up, I wanted to belong to the dominant culture/religion and that, in conjunction with this, my feelings toward Judaism were confused and ambiguous.

Once I realized this, I took the already published essays and reframed them (some more than others) to more closely align them with this theme of self-definition and identity.

I also wrote new sections to fill out and deepen this exploration. Most of these new essay/chapters wouldn’t have worked as stand-alone pieces as they more fully “speak” only to the other essays.

LR. I'm interested in the process of transforming the individual essays into a coherent, logical progression. Can you describe your process of selecting, revising, ordering, and writing additional transition pieces to make it work as a book? 

SWS. Let me give some examples.

The first essay I wrote is also title essay, “The Pat Boone Fan Club,” and sets the tone/theme of the book in that, growing up, I wanted the clean-cut, wholesome, overtly Christian 1960s pop star, Pat Boone, to adopt me, as if he could save me from my abusive Jewish father.

The next essay I wrote, originally titled “The Land of Look Behind,” focuses on my obsession with a homeless tramp who wandered around St. Thomas (where I spent most of my childhood). In the original, stand-alone version, the essay explored the idea of hypocrisy: the wealthy white parents on the island warned us kids, their children, that the tramp might be dangerous. However, ironically, and generally speaking, these white parents were the dangerous adults. In fact, the tramp wasn’t dangerous at all. Among the white parents, many were alcoholics. Others physically and emotionally abused their children. To say nothing of my own dangerous and hypocritical father.

This idea of hypocrisy remains, yet I re-slanted many details – for the book – to highlight the tramp’s role as a potential “savior.” I followed him around as if he, like Pat Boone, could save me – could lead me away from my father – as if he were a spiritual being and I was one of his followers. I also changed the title to “The Wandering Jew” to emphasize that aspect of culture.

As I continued on with the book, I shifted the lens a bit, with each essay, to approach this theme of identity from different angles. For example, there’s a section, “That Summer of War and Apricots,” about a trip to Israel to pick apricots on a kibbutz – but I still don’t discover my Jewish roots. There’s a section called “Galveston Island Breakdown: Some Directions” about an existential crisis I have when my marriage, myself, and my Volkswagen all break down. In “My Sorted Past,” I explore the idea of identity when I visit the movie set of the filming of my second memoir Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, and so on.

The final pieces I wrote for the book are what I call “bridge sections” in which I address the reader directly. These, sprinkled throughout the book, act as a kind of “meta” element to help guide the reader on this journey.

LR. Do you enjoy that part of the process, or is it a special kind of torture? One memoirist told me going from individual essays to a memoir-in-essays meant she had to "break the back of each piece," and that it felt like breaking her own back at the same time.
SWSActually, I loved this part of the process! I love to revise in any event, but, in terms of this book, it deepened my own understanding of how various encounters with people, or moments in time, were, in fact, a search for self. As I revised each essay – and/or wrote new ones – it was kind of like solving mysteries. For example: How did this tramp in the West Indies represent a savior? What were my true feelings toward him? Metaphorically, how was he just like Pat Boone in terms of my search? I write memoir/essays to make sense of my life, to discover the metaphors of it.

Ironically, therefore, my experience was probably the exact opposite from your friend’s in that, for me, this revision process helped form my backbone, rather than breaking my back.

LR. A few of the bridge pieces are in the form of letters to "Gentle Reader" signed SWS, and referring to the narrator as a "little Gefilte (fish)."  What was the genesis for those?

SWS. After I’d finished the “regular” essays, I felt I needed an additional unifying element to better hold the book together. In these sections the narrator takes on the “persona” of a gefilte fish – yes, very surreal, I know! But the gefilte fish acts as a metaphor for this narrator in her quest for identity: Who am I? Can I be a Christian? Can I accept Judaism? How can I find a “me” who feels comfortable in her skin?

Why a gefilte fish? Because it isn’t a “real” fish! There is no fish swimming in the ocean called “gefilte.” It’s kind of a mish-mash without a true identity. Which is how I myself felt growing up – a kind of mish-mash of identities – so it seemed like the perfect metaphoric image.

LR. In some places, you use subheads and/or segmented form. Elsewhere, the reader encounters multiple choice questions; excerpts from emails, signs, and website text; script formatting; and some varied type fonts. I've read that some writers and publishers -- cognizant (consciously or not) of how readers' visual expectations have changed because of the internet and shorter attention spans -- are building more visual elements, shorter "easy eyefuls" into book-length work (especially in YA fiction). To me, these things in your book seem to be purely creative, narrative-driven decisions, but I wondered if any of that crossed your mind?

SWS. Oh, interesting. It never occurred to me to write with that in mind: changes in readers’ expectations, shorter attention spans, etc. You’re right: all my decisions were narrative-driven. What did I need to best convey the material in this particular essay/chapter? How best to serve the needs of the piece? All decisions were based on that.

But that’s an interesting observation: that readers’ tastes have changed. And, for all I know, I might have been subconsciously influenced by that without realizing it!

LR. I often use something I'm reading in my teaching, and one of the micro ways in which I took this book into the classroom was to point out your excellent use of verbs – precise, interesting, unexpected, so carefully selected. Does that come naturally to you, or does attention to word choice mostly happen during revision? A little of both?

SWS. Thank you! I’m delighted you see this in my writing. Some of the word selection, as it does for all writers, comes naturally. However, most of this attention to word selection, metaphor, detail comes only with revision. Everything I write goes through a gazillion drafts – well, okay, maybe fifteen or twenty…I lose track. But a lot.

The first draft is usually getting the basic narrative in place. Then, with each subsequent draft, I move from this broad focus to smaller details. I’ll revise to ensure every image speaks to the theme. I try to find the most accurate words. I examine each sentence to ensure it builds on the previous one.

I can only accomplish so much in any given draft, so it’s a long process. But the longer I stay with a piece, the more I’ll discover the exact word or verb to convey the meaning at hand.

LR.  I understand Pat Boone has been supportive of the book; that you even attended his 80th birthday party. Can you tell me what it has been like – after admiring him from afar for so long, and spending so much time dissecting your unusual pull to him, and writing about it – to be in real contact with him, off the page?

SWS. Yes, Pat Boone likes the book! It’s both flattering and surreal to have developed a bit of a relationship with him. I first had a crush on him when I was a teeny-bopper! And now, all these years later, he knows my name…and admires my writing! I mean, that’s kind of wild.

Here’s what’s most gratifying: he’s really a nice person. My early childhood instincts were correct. The memoir revolves around three separate times I met Pat Boone. In one instance, when he invited me backstage after a Christmas concert, he pointed to an embroidered flower on the jacket I was wearing and said, “You remind me of a flower growing up through concrete.” By this time, he’d read my first two memoirs (one about my incestuous family, the other about a subsequent struggle with sex addiction), so he was referring to how I survived. In this sense, therefore, he did see me more clearly than my own father.

Then, when I told him I planned to attend his 80th Birthday Party Celebrity Roast at the Beverly Hilton (back on June 1st), he was genuinely delighted. He asked me to bring additional copies of my book for him to give to his family and friends. And, he invited me to attend the VIP reception before the dinner. When he saw me he gave me a big hug!

There were hundreds of people at the party, yet he took time to talk about the book with me. The very last line of the book is metaphoric and we discussed the meaning of it! I mean, could I ever have imagined discussing metaphors with Pat Boone!? (That said, he graduated magna cum laude in English from Columbia University.)

So while it’s true that, politically, we don’t have a thing in common, and I am distressed by the fact that he’s a member of the conservative Tea Party (I’m a liberal Democrat), still, I’ve been able to look past these differences and find this gentle, caring side of Pat Boone.

LR. Given that you are busy teaching writing at the graduate level, is it difficult to make progress on your own writing? What are you working on now (if you don't mind sharing)?

SWSProbably no writer feels as if she/he has enough time to write! But since I teach at a low-residency MFA in Writing program (Vermont College of Fine Arts), as opposed to teaching at a traditional college with daily classes, I probably have more time than others. So I can’t (or shouldn’t) complain.

Besides, I love to teach and am quite satisfied with this balance between teaching and writing.

I’m currently working on another memoir/essay collection. I’ve got a very rough draft. It’s still finding its form and focus, but I’m getting closer to figuring it out.

Also, I’m quite excited that I wrote a poem last week! It’s the first one I’ve written since my poetry collection was published back in 2006. I was worried I’d never write another one. The title is “If the Girl Never Learns to Cook or Sew” (yes, autobiographical). So maybe another poetry collection is percolating. I hope so!

Note from Lisa: Sue will *stop by* the blog for several days after this post runs, to answer any questions left in comments. She will also send a complimentary signed copy of The Pat Boone Fan Club to a randomly selected commenter (must have a US postal address). To be in the drawing, post your comment by end of day Wednesday, August 5.