Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Basement Series: Readers Raising Funds for Lit Camp and San Francisco's Scholar Match

Po Bronson. Photo credit: Nicole R. Zimmerman
On Friday I attended my second Basement Series event, a monthly literary reading (in the basement) at the Sports Basement in San Francisco. Each reading features two authors along with a smattering of writers who submit work on a theme. November's theme was sports, which turned out to be surprisingly humorous with many laugh-out-loud moments.

Award-winning investigative journalist Justine Gubar read from her recently released Fanaticus: Mischief and Madness in the Modern Sports Fan, but it was Po Bronson--best-selling author of The Nudist on the Late Shift, What Should I Do With My Life, and Nurtureshock--who I'd come to hear.

Basement Series. Photo credit: Nicole R. Zimmerman

The Basement Series also functions as a fundraiser for both Lit Camp, a juried writers conference I attended in 2014, and Scholar Match, a local non-profit organization that connects low-income students with free college counseling resources and services that make college possible.

The 2016 dates for Lit Camp are May 12 to May 15 at Mayacamas Ranch. The deadline for applications for 40 slots is January 31, 2016. According to the website:
Applicants should submit no more than 4,000 words of their best unpublished prose.

If you'd like to read more, check out their website or my blog recap on Lit Camp here!

Monday, November 2, 2015

National Novel Writing Month: NaNoWriMo

It's November and that means NaNoWriMo! That's National Novel Writing Month, a virtual worldwide writing group that helps you achieve the goal of completing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30. According the official website, "NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought about writing a novel." 

As noted on my 2010 blog post about NaNoWriMo:
"Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly."

Here's how to get started at NaNoWriMo:

  • Sign in and complete your profile so you can connect on regional forums
  • Create your novel and track your word count
  • Choose a home region to get updates on local events (my area has a kick-off party followed by a write-in at the central library this week, and monthly all-day Sundays at my local library)
  • Earn participation and self-awarded writing badges by completing specific milestones
  • Get inspired with NaNo prep, NaNo coachesand pep talks by well-known authors delivered to your NaNomail inbox throughout the season
The first pep talk from graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang notes:
You have to create a life that is conducive to writing. That means scheduling regular time to write. Weekly is okay, daily is better. Writing must become a habit. If something gets in the way of your writing habit, seriously consider cutting it out of your life. You have to write even when you don’t feel like it.

It warms me to know that 2,173 members in Sonoma County are plugging away at their word count this month. I'm not a novel writer, so I'm not signing up, but I am jump-starting my writing (or, revision) process once again with renewed commitment to the completion of essays I wish to submit for publication. By condensing my copywriting into four days, I'm carving out Mondays as my creative writing day. This morning I journaled: "Can I do it? What if I can't? I'm afraid of failing--not to fail at writing well, but to fail at trying, at following through, because the writing is so hard, because I sometimes hit a wall I can't initially see through and I feel paralyzed and want to back up and give up."

To this Gene Luen Yang writes:

Fear will always be there, a constant companion, a backseat driver who won’t get out of the car. I have to turn up the radio and go.
If you sign up, you can spread the word and post and tweet about your progress; you can even use this badge for bragging rights as your social media banner. Are you ready for the challenge? Go!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Playing with Pictures: Art Journaling and Murals

Words spin me and swirl through me and onto the screen or page, but sometimes the brain needs a break. That's when visual art nourishes my spirit like a hearty autumn soup simmering on the stove. On Wednesday nights I've been attending art journaling sessions with Susie Stonefield Miller at Unfold Studio near my home. Here are the first pages I made, using already spray-painted stencils, stamps, collage, a photo of me in preschool (with macaroni necklace) making sponge prints, and a watercolor cut-out from my niece.

"I want to play with words and pictures. I want to play!" is from a non-dominant hand dialog I wrote nine years ago. I remember so clearly the simplicity and quiet joy of playing with art materials--finger paints, watercolors, beads and sequins--when I was young. Entering the sacred space of the sunlit studio with soft music playing and herbal tea at my side, I can delve into a process-oriented experience and play with images, words, or themes in a more intuitive way that removes the "adult" pressure of producing a thing of beauty. You can watch Susie's time-lapse video here!

Another brain-soothing and soul-feeding visual hobby is photographing art or making art from photos. Not long ago I visited my cousins who now live near my old stomping grounds in San Francisco's Mission District. I spent a couple of hours one morning wandering the mural alleys behind their apartment. Here are some of the dozens of iPhone snapshots I took that day:

Monday, October 19, 2015

Creative Nonfiction Issue 57: Making a Living

The long-awaited Fall 2015 issue #57 of Creative Nonfiction magazine, in which my essay "Crisis" is featured among seven pieces, finally arrived in my mailbox on Friday. What a great precursor to a celebratory birthday weekend! Here's a preview about the issue, emailed in the October newsletter:

NEW ISSUE: Making a Living
For the young office temp, the state executioner, the musician, the activist, the refugee worker, the rape crisis counselor, and the estate planning attorney whose stories are featured in Creative Nonfiction #57, making a living is about more than just doing a job.  

It's about duty and survival and working meaning out of the days.

This issue features some of the most vivid, memorable, powerful prose we've ever published--stories that make you stop and sit and read and learn and think and forget everything else around you at least for a little while. 

No matter that I got two rejections  (ok, make that three, as I just got another!) for other essays of mine that are making their submission rounds, including this one from Hippocampus Magazine:
"We were impressed with many of the pieces submitted to our contest; narrowing down a few hundred selections to six finalists was a challenge. Your submission, Pearls was read with interest, but it was not selected as a finalist."
Laying eyes on the beautiful layout of Creative Nonfiction, seeing my byline and reading the essay I began in my MFA program five years ago--finalized after many drafts and some fine-tuning in collaboration with managing editor Hattie Fletcher--was truly this writer's dream realized. In addition to a check (a rarity from literary magazines and journals), I received this lovely personalized note from the amazing Hattie.

It was a busy birthday weekend of brunches, Sonoma County Art Trails open studios, a farmers market Vietnamese coffee and bakery breakfast, a regional park hike, a bottle of bubbly and a princess cake. Now it's back to blogging, writing and working... but I can't wait to settle in with the new issue and read all of the other printed essays alongside mine. Curious?

Order your issue of Creative Nonfiction here!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Tantalizing Travel Tales at the Mill Valley Library

Last week I participated in a reading at the Mill Valley Library called Tantalizing Travel Tales, hosted by Lisa Alpine, author of Wild Life: Travel Adventures of a Worldly Woman. Other all-stars in the 3-part series have included Pam Houston, Don George & Molly Giles. According to the library website:

"Led by local travel enthusiasts, writers, adventurers, and tried-and-true world travelers, the Library's travel and cultural lecture series aims to inspire and inform. Speakers share their experiences of exploring their heritage and culture or their experiences being out in the world, exploring exotic locales and making a difference in far-flung corners of the world. Join us and take a little trip right here within the Library."

It's been a long time since I read my writing aloud, and it was confirmation on the importance of having an audience for our work, as they were incredibly responsive both during the reading and afterward. 

It's always a challenge to stay focused on one's presentation while at the same time noticing the audience's reactions. Early on, I had to remove my glasses for readability, which blurred the sea of faces a bit. (I was pleased when my my stepmother said I delivered the story with irony, and no one could tell how nervous I really was!)

Before I went, I could hear the inner critic: "It's an old piece, do not you have something fresher?" 

Since most of the travel writing I do these days is in my role as copywriter for Viator, I revived an old travel story set in Brazil, which won a silver certificate in the romance category of the Solas Awards by Travelers' Tales in 2008. The piece got me into grad school in 2010 and I've since revised it multiple times, still hoping it finds a home in print, but thinking maybe this reading would be its final send-off.

With only twelve minutes at the podium, I realized the 10-page essay was too long to fit in, but I didn't want to leave the audience hanging midway, especially since there isn't any "buy the book to read the rest" option and I'd rather not refer to my original draft still posted in the online archive. 

So I took time beforehand to condense the travel tale by more than 1,000 words--always a great exercise in concision, which of course begs the question: Is all that I cut out (mostly setting and some characterization) superfluous to the story?

Once I heard the first laughter along with nods and ahhhs, I knew the story was a success. About five people came up afterward with words of praise: one asking where to find it so she could send it to a friend; another citing the rhythm of language (both English and Portuguese); and a Brazilian woman from the front row whom my father said was nodding and nudging her partner throughout the reading, who spoke to me at length in both languages. About all I remember now is "Adoro! Adoro!" I adore (it).

Ten friends and family members showed up in support!
Posing with my librarian cousin

I say all this not to brag, but as reminder to myself and my blog readership that just when we doubt ourselves we may find our greatest supporters in the company of strangers. Writing is such as solitary thing, and when we churn the same piece over and over and over again in our minds and on the page, there's nothing like the interactive experience of sharing to serve as motivation to write more.

What a pleasure it was to participate with these other writers and hear their work as well:

  • Kirsten Koza, author of Lost in Moscow: A Brat in the USSR
  • Roger Housden, author of 23 books including Saved by Beauty: A Journey Through Iran
  • Christina Ammon, travel journalist and Deep Travel writing tours organizer

For more info, click on Tantalizing Travel Tales part II (October 20) or part III (November 3):

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Art of Memoir: Mary Karr Speaks at USF on Recovery, Spirituality, Prayer and Writing

"I was a heathen most of my life," said Mary Karr, University of San Francisco's inaugural speaker in the Ignatian Lecture Series on Writing and Spirituality in mid-September. "It was more likely I’d become a pole dancer or a drug mule than a Catholic."

It's the kind of quick wit Karr used throughout the evening talk, interlaced with humility and generous honesty, as she discussed the role of religion in her life and in her work. Before she became an acclaimed writer, she had some "bad jobs" including crawfish trucking.

Now the award-winning poet and New York Times best-selling memoirist of The Liars’ ClubCherry, and Lit has a new book: The Art of Memoir

But her discussion hardly focused on the book or its promotion. Mostly, she talked about prayer. 

"I ask God what to write and try to write out of that," said the self-described "black-belt sinner" who, growing up, never really believed in God, which she likened to believing in the Easter bunny. 

Twenty-six years sober, Karr described her last drink"hitting concrete" in a car accidentand says she "became teachable in that moment." She said she prays and pursues spirituality "because I want to be a little less of an asshole."

Today, Karr also uses prayer as a writing ritual. But she was clear that opening to inspiration is a daily practice: "God didn’t offer a 5-year plan for a manuscript."

In the beginning, she started with rote prayer. Eventually, she said, "something started happening—a quiet place opening up inside; a moment of peace." She said Catholic communion was like poetry. 

Eventually, it was through prayer that Karr tuned in and turned down a seven-figure advance for Lit. She said she never second-guessed her decision, and the book ended up in a better situation. In fact, without her spiritual practice, she didn't think she'd have written anything with the success she did. 

"I’m not a good writer. I’m a dogged little bulldog of a rewriter," said Karr, who described the first draft of Lit as "glib and shallow" and joked that her first drafts wouldn’t get her into the MFA program at USF.

Lest you mistake her mastery for writing ease, here's a reality check:

Liars' Club took her three and a half years to write, unless you count the four years she first attempted it as a novel. "I almost have to count the 15 years I was in therapy before I wrote it," she added. Lit took nine years to complete: "I threw away twelve hundred finished pages. I broke the delete key on my computer."

Karr teaches at Syracuse University, which awarded her an honorary doctorate in 2015. In response to an audience question, she said she's learned from her students that writing is "extremely hard and extremely lonely." She described writing memoir, in particular, as psychologically and morally jarring. 

Thankfully, that hardship never stopped the critically acclaimed writer from working to completion.

"It hurts and you cry and then you put back on your big-girl panties and put your butt back in the chair."

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Going Old School: Nostalgic for the Typewriter

Photo credit: OldTypewriter
Have you noticed a resurgent interest in vintage and portable typewriters? Royal, Smith-Corona, Underwood, Remington--all have caught my eye in neighborhood antique stores and online venues like Etsy, such as this 1970s Red Portable Olivetti Valentine Vintage, sold by OldTypewriter. Combine old-school nostalgia with sleek shapes and clickety-clack acoustic appeal, and it's hard to resist the visual and tactile beauty of these machines, which typically run anywhere from $70-350. You can also find refurbished ones at a brick-and-mortar shops like Gramercy Office Equipment Co in NYC.

A typewriter is "ideal for composing indelible condolences, congratulations and even business letters," according to a 2014 Wall Street Journal article by Steve Garbarino, who also reported on forthcoming gadgets that "promise to bring the typewriter into the digital age": the Hemingwrite (now called Freewrite) by Astrohaus, a cloud-connected word processor with mechanical keys; and the Qwerkywriter, a Bluetooth mechanical keyboard. Each device costs over $300.

If that's not in your budget or you're wedded to the ease of your laptop and digital devices, there's typewriter jewelry to wear, such as these earrings of my initials and a favorite antique locket.

Or, simply pore over typewriter treasures in exhibits all over the world, from the Typewriter Museum in Finland to the Soboroff Typewriter Collection at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills, which displays typewriters by people featured on the cover of Time magazine, including such literary luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles and Ray Bradbury. Watch this CBS video of Steve Soboroff, president of the LA Police Commision, and hear the collector speak about the appeal.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Tuolumne Meadows Poetry Festival at Parsons Memorial Lodge in Yosemite National Park

Back from my 3-week road trip to the Eastern Sierra, including a stop in Death Valley and two final nights camping just outside Yosemite National Park, I've now framed and hung a lovely letterpress broadside of a poem purchased at the art boutique/visitor center in Lee Vining near Mono Lake.

The poem, Azure Creek, by 8th-century Chinese poet Wang Wei and translated by PEN Award–winner David Hinton, beautifully describes the almost-perennial state of tranquility my wife and I experienced as we practiced idleness of the mind, especially in places where granite rock meets clear water, such as this prime campsite at Rock Creek.

It wasn't easy to select the poem among a collection of broadsides from the annual Tuolumne Meadows Poetry Festival at Parsons Memorial Lodge, which takes place each August. See the postcard for details!

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Writing Maps: "Inspiration in Your Pocket"

Got writer's block? Shaun Levin, a "deviser of Writing Maps," publishes what he calls "inspiration in your pocket" with a plethora of writing prompts in each portable creation. According to the website:
Each illustrated Writing Map contains at least 12 extended and thought-provoking writing exercises that will help you explore the city, the home, characters in fiction and memoir, the writing process, and life in general. Writing Maps are created to suit writers of all genres and levels. Writing Maps are devised to inspire stories, spice up your writing routine, expand your work, develop work-in progress, and make sure you have writerly fun in ways that'll surprise you.
Check out maps such as "City of Inspiration" and "Write by the Sea," and take a look here:


Levin is also the creator of The A3 Review, a lit mag that also "folds out like a map," with each section containing a 150-word-limit piece of prose or poetry. What's more, each month there's a Writing Maps writing contest on a theme, with the two winning pieces published in the A3 Review every six months. (Next issue is slated for September 2015.) This month's deadline is July 25:

The prompt for July's Writing Contest is: Journeys. Write the entire story of a single journey in 150 words. A journey around the world or around a room. A journey that took years or just minutes. A physical or spiritual journey. Journeys on foot, or by bus, train or plane. Real or imagined journeys, intergalactic journeys or a trip to the supermarket. Write about this journey as a poem, or in the form of a short story, a graphic story or a snippet of memoir. Fiction or autobiography, SF or mis mem, erotic or academic. Maximum 150 words.

Speaking of journeys, I'm hitting the highway at dawn tomorrow with my wife-partner for some of our favorite stomping grounds in the Eastern Sierra during a 3-week camping road trip. My posts have been sporadic lately, but I intend to get back to the blogosphere post-summer. So, keep writing...

Driving toward the Sierra Nevada from the Inyo Mountains
Photo credit: Nicole R. Zimmerman

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Haiku in May

Gleaming white naked sheep graze

Wind chimes silence train

Garden growing, need more rain?

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