a bit of writerly advice…for Sept. 13, 2018

All the moments that make up a human being have to be written about, talked about, painted, danced, in order to really talk about life. –Rita Dove, Ohio native, Pulitzer Prize winner, and former U.S. Poet Laureate

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Free image courtesy of KathrynMaloney at Pixabay.com

The above quote is from an old interview with Rita Dove in which she talks about her background and her decision–not until college–to try to become a writer. “I always thought [writing] was something that you did as a child, then you put away childish things,” she said. “I didn’t know writers could be real live people, because I never knew any writers.”

There it is, isn’t it? This writing thing: childish, right? Ever feel guilty about writing? I do. Especially the writing I do that doesn’t buy groceries. Why? Because it’s unnecessary, a luxury, an escape, mere child’s play.

Or is it?

Maybe writing, as Rita Dove says, is essential to this life we’re all living here–necessary to becoming part and parcel of this existence.

What do you think?

Now…go write.

But first, sample Rita Dove’s poetry here at Kenyon Review with “Concert at Hanover Square” and try–I dare you–to forget the gray mice image!

 

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Submit, submit, submit

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Photo by Anthony on Pexels.com

It’s that time again: submission season.

It’s the season when we writers polish up our prose and poems and novel MS synopses to send out into the world, fresh-faced and optimistic, imbued with loads of potential–in the hopes of being published. I wave to them and smile (a little smugly). “I’ve done good,” I tell myself.

And then proceed to shudder in fear.

Oh, wait.

Maybe that’s my kids. Yep, silly me. September is also back-to-school season, when I send my actual offspring out into the world, fresh-faced. I wave and smile…Well, you get it.

Here’s the thing.

Let’s not confuse our creative offspring with our actual offspring, our stories with our kids. Really, I’m talking to myself here. Is it just me? Am I the only one who’s ever uttered: “That manuscript is my baby.” (Note that I had not yet endured screaming twin infants when I said that.) No, I can’t be the only one. In fact, I’m pretty certain there’s a country song with that title.

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Making the most of a literary conference…with a card and a queen

On my writing desk sits a small box filled with even smaller business cards I ordered for the Literary Festival I will be attending next month. These cards are, in effect, the professional “me.” On one side is listed my freelance biz; on the other (shown below) my creative writing credentials.

My two-sided business card mirrors the divided roles I play in this writing life of mine. This is the gig economy in action, folks, and I am a 2 inch-by-3 inch fraud. OK, no, there are no untruths on my business card, but still I feel like a fake sometimes.

It’s natural, self-doubt–especially when pulled in many directions–and inherent in this introverted writer. But business cards? Networking? I mean, networking is no less than 5,000 miles away from my natural habitat. So, what to do to make the most of my time at a literary (or any other kind of) conference?

Come along for the ride…

First, strike a power pose. What does that look like for an introverted writer? Particular pose aside, power-posing is all about boosting your confidence and is key to overcoming “imposter syndrome,” says super-talented career coach and humor blogger, Becca–who encourages those of us who unjustly feel like frauds to “Fake It ‘Till You Become It.”

OK, so I’ve got my business card. And practiced body language (time to break out the full-length mirror I don’t have!).

Second, follow a three-tier plan for getting what I want out of this conference (and by extension this writing life, but…baby steps).

Let’s be clear, I’m attending this festival for the backside (ahem), the creative side of me. With so many talks, readings, and panel discussions to choose from, I need to choose wisely to return home not exhausted but ready to write.

Craft: outside of an online writing workshop or two, it’s been a good while since I took part in a proper fiction workshop, so this tops my list of must-dos.

Connect: one big reason I started Rust Belt Girl was to connect with writers writing from and about the post-industrial Midwest, and I’ll have ample opportunity at this Ohio event; I also hope to meet a few of the many literary journal editors who will be there–always helpful to hear what they’re looking for in submissions.

Soak it in: with a schedule full of creative readings–from poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers–I hope to come away inspired enough by the stories of others to return, re-energized, to my own.

And then there are the side-perks of discovering a city I’ve never visited before and of being close enough to an Ohio site I want to research for my WIP that I can make the weekend a two-fer.

But, even before that, there’s the preparation*, and I don’t just mean packing “serious writer” outfits and a wrap for cool conference rooms. And, of course, having my own stuff together for my creative reading and appearance on a panel about publishing from the writer’s perspective. I mean reading up: not just writer bios, but the book of collected stories from the keynote speaker, Leslie Nneka Arimah; and poems from the Ohio poet laureate, Dave Lucas.

Many thanks to super-knowledgeable blogger, Lorna, at Gin & Lemonade for helping me to develop this plan for slaying it (insert power pose here) at the literary festival and for passing along this post with helpful tips for making the most of a conference as an introvert: “Breathe” is a good one to remember. So is: “Grab People’s Business Cards.”

If all else fails, I’ll just summon my inner Ally McBeal–yep, showing my age here–and come to the literary festival ready with an inspirational song in my head.

With the recent death of Aretha Franklin, followed by the singer’s Detroit funeral that included a procession of 130 pink Cadillacs (more details on that here), I thought I’d take a confidence cue from the Queen of Soul. So many powerful songs: “Respect,” “A Natural Woman.”

My fave: “I Say a Little Prayer”

Have any tips to share for making the most of a conference–literary or otherwise? I’d love to hear them!

*Update: One more item to prepare before a conference–literary or otherwise: the 30-second elevator pitch. Do you have one? “It’s a good idea to have one of these prepared for your art,” says poet and former marketing executive Danielle Hanson, in a wonderfully-informative article in the latest (Sept/Oct) issue of Poets & Writers magazine, which is pretty much the bible for literary writers. Your elevator pitch should answer the question: What do you do?

Here’s my working elevator pitch: I write fiction. I’m interested in exploring the idea of the American Dream in place–both during wartime and at peace. My historical novel manuscript explores lives on the WWII home-front and tells the largely unknown story of the internment of Italians in America during that time. My short stories explore the contemporary American Rust Belt, with many set in my native Ohio. I also blog at Rust Belt Girl to connect with authors, photographers, and readers in the region and beyond. There I feature discussions on “ruin porn,” author interviews, and my own craft essays, drawn from my experiences as a writer and as a former college writing instructor.

What do you think? What am I missing?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Revising is the opposite of cake

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Editing is veritable cake.

Editing ourselves might mean a trip to the hairdresser; editing our lifestyle might mean getting to bed on time; editing our house might take a can of paint. Editing a WIP means re-tooling, re-telling, and finding and following the right style guide.

But revising–really re-seeing–ourselves, our places and lifestyles, and, by extension, the stories we tell, takes much more time, energy, and lobotomy-level introspection.

Revising is the opposite of cake: not at all light and fluffy. Maybe something more like swamp muck, quicksand, or even asphalt.

Revising a WIP? My condolences. You’re in the muck of re-seeing and re-forming, struggling, hopefully, to once again resurface. Only then can you can catch your breath  to dig in again.

Me, I’m in the last, surface-y editing stage of one project and the first-draft stage of another–the former like frosting, the latter all discovery and flashes of light. (And here’s where the pastry analogy has worn thin, become too tough–ha.)

OK, back to the poor, unfortunate revising soul: to revise a WIP is an act of soul-searching, on the part of the author and the author’s characters. To revise a memoir must be a frightening process of destroying and remaking again and again one’s own image on paper. Bless you, memoirists; you are a brave lot.

I’ll lump the late Jefferson Davis in here–with memoirists, but not with the blessing. If you missed my recent post, I was reading Varina by author Charles Frazier of Cold Mountain fame. (Varina was Mrs. Jefferson Davis, first lady of the false country of the Confederate States of America during the U.S. Civil War.) In this historical novel, which explores the lives of real historical figures, there is a wonderful description of what it means to write and revise, provided by the character of Sara Dorsey.

Dorsey had been something of a writer, herself, and it’s at her home where Jefferson Davis is writing his memoirs (which, after his death, his wife ultimately revised). Dorsey describes the arduous task of writing memoirs this way:

…sitting still at a table draining memory dry to fill blank pages with strong words.

Tough enough. But then she describes revising–on the page but also on the page of history that found Jefferson Davis clearly on the side of the wrong:

…the joy of revising…which unlike life allows you to go back and rethink and make yourself better than you really are. … Even if the work comes to nothing, he will have these days to shape the past, make sense of how the runes fell against him.

Runes or no, what’s your favorite part of revising? Least favorite?

*above photo of a house seen and re-seen all at once, provided by Bill Moon of Port Clinton, Ohio–thanks, Dad!

 

 

a bit of writerly advice for July 31, 2018

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Free image courtesy of KathrynMaloney at Pixabay.com

Every parent knows the torment of a four-year-old’s interrogation. Why is the sky blue? How do birds fly? … Questions are the backflips of the mind. They are, as the early-twentieth-century explorer Frank Kingdon-Ward once said, ‘the creative acts of intelligence.’ –from Lisa Garrigues’ Writing Motherhood

The past couple years, I’ve gotten in touch with my inner four-year-old in a way I never thought I would. I don’t often talk about my work-work here (except for lessons learned from writing direct mail); however, I will now, briefly.

In the last year, I’ve conducted what feels like a bazillion but is probably closer to 50 interviews, in order to write articles. All have dealt with science–not exactly in my cozy-and-comfortable arts and humanities wheelhouse. I’ve queried doctors about the symptoms of stroke and about virtual medical delivery systems. I’ve asked engineering students about minuscule solar cells and unmanned aerial vehicles. And I’ve asked budding scientists to describe and describe again a headset that can help detect Alzheimer’s. And much, much more.

Have all my questions spurred Grade A scientific conversation? Probably not. Have I asked a dumb question or two. Probably.

But I asked, and oftentimes asked a second time. (In layman’s terms please, I ask. If I still don’t understand, I say, Pretend you had to teach this concept to a child.)

There it is.

Ask questions like a child. Listen. Ask again. That’s my writerly advice for the week.

(Looking for interviewing tips? Here you go.)

What’s your best “writerly” advice?

 

 

 

OH

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I have to say, I felt a little bit vindicated when reading author Lauren Groff‘s latest interview with Poets & Writers magazine (her short story collection, Florida, was released earlier this year) in which she asserts: “Florida is the biggest joke of all the states. It is the punchline to every other state’s joke.”

Oh?

That statement, itself, feels like a joke to this Cleveland, Ohio native. A quick recap for the Buckeye State-uninitiated: OH is flyover country; Cleveland is the “Mistake on the Lake”; the home team Cleveland Browns’ last season went 0 and 16. (Yep, it’s a rebuilding year–again.)

The big F-L? A “bad joke?” Even if one doesn’t dream of Disney or gets heat-hives, the Sunshine State has a lot on offer. For a girl growing up in the Snowbelt of the Rust Belt? Florida sounded like heaven.

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But into each heaven, some rain must fall. (Yep, bastardizing Longfellow now.) Stay with me.

Place is important. I’ve covered this before here and here. Writing about place is important. Writing about a conflicted place? Both sunshine and darkness?

Now, that’s interesting. Yep, Goff’s Florida is on my TBR. (Want to learn more before you buy? Bookish Beck has a short review of the story collection.)

But the push and pull of FL on the writer is not all the truth Groff has to offer in this insightful interview. Advice for the rest of us?

On collections: “I believe short story collections have to be an argument,” Groff says.

On being a writing mother and the “sexist enterprise” that is American parenting: “I had my husband sign a ten-year contract…It was about how we live…I’m a writer. I’m going to continue to be a writer. I will never be a full-time mother…”

On being a writer: “…if you’re the writer you have to take it [the above agreement] more seriously. It means you’re taking yourself seriously as an artist.”

So here I am, back at my desk, musing about place and writing and parenthood and balance and summer. When, you might ask, did this writing mother have time to read a magazine interview? On vacation, where these beautiful photos were taken in…

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OH.

Are you conflicted about your native place or the place you call home? How does place inform your reading and writing?

 

*Thanks, Dad and Ryan, for the pics!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“…until you don’t suck as much.”

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No, not you…me.

And so I sat at my computer last night, wondering…

How to make David Sedaris apropos for the ol’ blog.

Hmm.

The author/humorist is a native of Binghamton, New York. That’s Rust Belt-ish, right?

Who cares? It’s David Sedaris! He’s got a new book out. Bookish Beck reviews it here. And so he’s been top-of-mind.

On a day when I’m feeling kind of stuck, creative writing-wise, and even a little sucky, I went searching for some writing advice and found Sedaris’s. It’s funny and wise and talks as much about our current share-heavy-and-share-often culture as it does about writing.

So, obviously, I will share it here, now.

“David Sedaris on Keeping a Diary in the Age of Over-Sharing” in The Atlantic.

I kept a diary for all of a week, when I was nineteen. I probably called it journaling, but it’s the same thing, I think. My mistake, according to Sedaris, is that I read what I had written–and was embarrassed by the detailing of overwrought emotions in response to a series of banal-at-best events. So I stopped journaling.

In my interview with memoirist David Giffels (another very funny guy), he had this to say about journaling:

I have journaled at various times, but to me, writing is getting down to work and doing it when it needs to be done. I think in banker’s hours. Once I’m working on a project, it’s all-consuming. I’m always taking notes. When you’re working on a writing project, you become a selective magnet, like all of a sudden everything in the world is being tested to see whether it’s going to be drawn to your subject. If it is, it comes flying at you and sticks. I’ll hear or see something and think, I have to write that down right away. That’s urgent journaling, I guess.

It’s good that I stopped journaling when I did, I think, because I hadn’t lived yet. I was writing about nothing. Certainly, I didn’t know enough to feel any sense of creative urgency.

So I started living and still try to; to do otherwise scares me. (Guess I should write about it). These days, when I’m writing, I’m writing, when I’m not, I’m reading–and attempting to live outside paper-and-ink worlds. How else does one have anything to write about?

Memoirists must have an abundance of personal story, but truth makes the narrative choices fewer. Amy Jo Burns, author of Cinderland, told me this in my interview with her this spring:

I’ll put it like this–novelists suffer from having too many choices, and memoirists suffer from the lack of them. I think I’ve used the same kind of creativity to solve both problems, but the boundaries are very separate.

Nonfiction and fiction writers alike trade in personal truths, of course. We are what and who we write–no matter the genre, no matter the distance we try to create between our characters and ourselves.

So, tell me, do you journal, write in a diary? When did you start? When did you first show it to someone? Does it spark your personal essays, blogs, stories?

Here’s to journaling–urgent or not. To writing and writing until we “don’t suck as much.” To funny writers. To beautiful weekend weather that took me outside to swim, bike, and shoot hoops with my boys. To live in the world off the page, so that I might feel inspired enough to get back to it today.

Happy Monday, all.

~Rebecca

*book image from goodreads.com

3 things we can learn from a not-great book

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There are great books and not-great books.

The joy of a great book is getting swept up in the narrative so that we forget the laundry that needs doing, the garden that needs weeding, the kids that need watering (kidding/not kidding).

Thing is, when we get swept up in a book, it can be hard to see the mechanics behind the thing: to discern where the scenes begin and end and where the author uses exposition; to follow the plot points and point to where the plot lines converge; to chart the character development; to consider the themes. And so on.

3 things a not-great book can teach us about writing:

The data dump: or, your research is showing

Any book takes some research; to write a historical novel takes a ton. Been there. The trick is digesting all your research so that it comes out through the natural interactions between the characters as they go about being testing and wrung out by the machinations of the author before coming out the other side changed. Whew!

A not-great historical novelist will reveal his or her research; often you’ll see it plunked down without much artistry in chunks at not-so-strategic points. Listen hard and you can hear the book’s editor saying: “You need to set this part of the story in time here; don’t forget World War Take-Your-Pick was going on…”

Backstory as dialogue: or, real people don’t talk like that

Novels are not screenplays, and vice versa. Screenplay writers have it tough. All scene (the showing part). No exposition (the telling part)! A little stage direction maybe–but, still, that’s tough stuff.

With exposition at our disposal, we fiction writers have it easy-ish. Exposition is an efficient way to dispense necessary information about the time and place where our story is set, about a character, or anything else. Exposition is also a good way to tell your reader about a character’s past (or backstory). It’s better than wrenching backstory into dialogue, which sounds kinda like this:

Character 1: “Remember the time we went on that train ride, and we met Jesse James, and fought Al Capone, and stopped for ice cream with Marilyn Monroe? And remember I said that was the best day ever and I felt like I knew what it was I needed to do with my life, and so here I am?”

Character 2: “Yep. Now, tell me more about that time I remember.”

And so this inane conversation goes…

I’m not saying I have backstory all figured out. More on my little backstory addiction here. But rather than try to wrench backstory into conversation, we can make it exposition. Or, think long and hard about whether that backstory is needed at all.

Got to start somewhere: or, an author’s earlier books

I’m a big fan of Amy Bloom, author of Lucky Us and Away. But, while I love these novels, which are later works of hers, her first book–a collection of stories called Come to Me: Stories–is the one I’ve studied. If you love to write and want to get better at it, give this a try: find early books by authors you admire and see how they crafted their stories.

Want to know what historical novel prompted this post? Hop on over to my FB page. And please share if you like.

What are you reading and writing this week?

via The Performance of Writing: What Writers Can Learn From Elite Athletes

Rebecca here: From “low dread” to sports psych to the art and patience of practice, this guest essay featured on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog was spot-on for me. Hope it strikes a chord in you, too.

A quick story before I go–about humility and performance and the knowledge of our elders, etc., etc. My regular readers know I was a ballet dancer as a kid. It wasn’t just my thing; it was my only thing for a while, which is dangerous enough that one’s identity becomes wholly wrapped up in it. So that, when the pirouette fails, the person fails.

Anyway…about those pirouettes, I could practice and practice in a corner of the studio, sweating my proverbial balls off (sorry), but I wouldn’t entertain any other notions of practice besides putting myself in fourth position and taking off, spot, spot, spot, tight core, and land. Or fall. Or fall off pointe. Or spin out into the wall.

Before a performance of some kind, I remember my mom asking me if I ever visualized doing a perfect triple pirouette. I rolled my eyes in reply. Visualization, along with the self help-mumbo jumbo-yoga-reiki-dalai lama nonsense she’d gotten into since she got sick was just that.

Then, of course, she died (not just then, but years later) with more grace than I’d ever been able to perform with. No matter all my practice and all my sweat.

To borrow from this essay on the practice of writing, I wasn’t yet ready. I couldn’t yet plunge to the “deepest depths” for my art. My art is different now, but I think I can.

Yep, I’m ready.

Good evening and good writing and reading. Good practice–what ever that looks like for you.

What does writing practice look like for you?