Monday, February 16, 2015

How to be a Better Writer: On Perseverance

Madly at work on several essay revisions, I've been feeling a bit mad (as in crazy, not angry) as I witness the erratic pace of my own writing process. After clocking 60 hours in January on the revision(s) of "Wildish Woman: A Portrait," about a wildlife biologist in Alaska, the writing went dormant in the post-submission phase as I recovered from the burn-out and accompanying self-doubt that followed. It took another two weeks before I could start up again, then--BAM! I spent all weekend writing another short draft for an anthology and completing a 2,500-word essay revision. If I were to graph the inert vs. active phases of my writing like an EKG, the spikes and dips might look like this:

Recently, someone sent a link to "25 Insights on Becoming a Better Writer." Check out this list compiled by Jocelyn K. Glei--what she calls "snippets of insight from some exceptional authors."

9. Sarah Waters: On being disciplined…

Treat writing as a job. Be disciplined. Lots of writers get a bit OCD-ish about this. Graham Greene famously wrote 500 words a day. Jean Plaidy managed 5,000 before lunch, then spent the afternoon answering fan mail. My minimum is 1,000 words a day – which is sometimes easy to achieve, and is sometimes, frankly, like shitting a brick, but I will make myself stay at my desk until I’ve got there, because I know that by doing that I am inching the book forward. Those 1,000 words might well be rubbish – they often are. But then, it is always easier to return to rubbish words at a later date and make them better.

20. Hilary Mantel: On getting stuck…

If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.

24. Joyce Carol Oates: On persevering…

I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes… and somehow the activity of writing changes everything. Or appears to do so.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Write Like A Serial Killer: Authors Talk About the Compulsion to Create at Poets&Writers LIVE

At Saturday's Poets&Writers LIVE event in San Francisco, my MFA friends and I found the most interesting panel session to be Why We Write, modeled after the magazine's column of the same name. Melissa Faliveno, the magazine's associate editor who moderated the panel of five writers and poets, referenced a prior stage conversation between David Shields and Caleb Powell regarding their recently published collaboration I Think You're Totally Wrong: A Quarrel, in which the two debate the merits of being wholly devoted to art or to life.

"My job is to curate my feelings as a writer," said Shields, author of 16 books with four more coming out in the next year. He spoke about the weaving of a psychic wound into art: "The best art is in conversation with that wound, even if it never talks about it." 

In an excerpt we watched of the upcoming film adaptation of the book by James Franco, each man pointed to a physical accident and resulting injury that shifted their trajectories toward becoming writers. The prolific Shields, who teaches at Warren Wilson College, said he became "addicted to writing books." In the P&W article "Art vs. Life," he addresses the cost of that singular kind of focus: "I always wanted to become a human being, but I overcommitted to art." Shields accuses his former student Powell, a stay-at-home father of three young girls, of doing the opposite: "My conception was that you wanted to be an artist, but you overcommitted to life."

It was the perfect jumping-off point for this panel of writers who were asked about the challenges of showing up for writing "when family, jobs and other obligations throw a boulder in your path."

Here are some snippets from that conversation that I scribbled into my notebook:

Michelle Tea, an author of five memoirs and two novels, said it was easy to show up for it when she was writing fervently in her twenties. She mentioned her "insane relationship" with her own writing in which she can't trust her inner critic and is baffled each time she sits down to write a new book, and described her writing approach as "barf a bunch out and clean it up later." Tea, who also just had a baby, admitted, "I don't know how I'll ever write again."

D.A. Powell, an award-winning poet who teaches at my alma mater USF, talked about writing as a process of turning outside what we have a natural tendency to do internally (in our observations and introspections). He said quality time means "I'm going to devote this moment" and encouraged: "Keep assembling your language. Something will come from it."

"Consistent practice like a pianist," recommended Alejandro Murguia, an American Book Award author and the sixth San Francisco Poet Laureate. To move past stumbling blocks he reads others' work, which allows him to then "enter my own text creatively inspired." He emphasized the value of reading aloud: "Making yourself sensitive to language." In a melodic voice he described the writing and revision process: "Cut away and expand and cut and expand until that final polished (poem) is like a dwarf star: one spoonful weighing three tons."

Yiyun Li, author of Kinder Than Solitude and several other books, learned discipline first as a scientist. "There's no excuse to wait for inspiration," she said about writing from 12 to 4 a.m. when her two babies were asleep. Aside from the pressures of real life, she said fiction fulfills "a desire to be with my characters."

Wendy Lesser, founding editor of the Threepenny Review and author of nine nonfiction books and a novel, quoted the poet Robert Pinksy: "I enjoy having written." She humorously described the compulsion of writing like that of a serial killer--the pressure to do it builds and builds, he has to do it, then... oh, it feels so great.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Renewing your commitment to writing in 2015: Poets&Writers conference + classes for writers

Jump-start your new year's writing resolutions with a winter writing class in your community or online. I'm headed to San Francisco on Saturday, January 10, for "Poets&Writers LIVE," a conference put on by my favorite writers' magazine. There's still room to register (cost is now $100):
Photo credit: Nicole R. Zimmerman
Join us for a day-long event at San Francisco's Brava Theater Center as we consider many facets of creativity, community, and inspiration. We'll kick things off with a "poetry keynote" by Pulitzer Prize–winner and former U.S. poet laureate Kay Ryan. A highlight of the program will be a multigenre, multimedia “inspiration experiment” featuring acclaimed author Joyce Carol Oates.  
Other sessions will include a discussion with authors and publishing professionals about resources for writers in San Francisco; a roundtable on smart self-publishing options; an interactive panel discussion on the Perfect Pitch in which we will invite select audience members to join an agent, an editor, and a publicist on stage; a conversation with award-winning poets and writers about why we write; and a "quarrel" between David Shields and Caleb Powell over the age-old debate of life vs. art. We'll top it all off with a Literary Mixer—a chance to meet others, share notes, and learn about the work of area presses and magazines.
The young writer at work
Or, consider signing up for an online course with another favorite, Creative Nonfiction magazine, which offers 10-week classes from January 12--March 22. According to their website:
Participants receive personalized feedback on assignments from their instructor, as well as responses from classmates on discussion board forums. All instructors are university professors and/or working professional writers--and there are never more than 14 students in any class. Conversation, firm deadlines, and feedback help keep you writing and improving your work throughout the class.
Check out this chock-full-of-inspiration lineup of classes, including the fabulous Becky Tuch, founder of my favorite writers' resource The Review Review.

Writing the Nonfiction Book Proposal
Instructor: Waverly Fitzgerald

Blogging for the Writer
Instructor: Becky Tuch

Magazine Writing
Instructor: Marty Levine

Narrative Medicine
Instructor: Ellen Ficklen

Creative Nonfiction Boot Camp
Instructor: Avery Leigh Thomas 

Writing the Personal Essay
Instructor: Barrett Swanson

Foundations of Creative Nonfiction
Instructor: Meghan O'Gieblyn

Advanced Memoir and Personal Essay
Instructor: Jonathan Callard

Monday, December 22, 2014

Writing in the new year: what I'm working on now

What to tackle next? In my internet meanderings I came upon my first love: travel writing. Can't believe I'd never heard of Nowhere Magazine: Literary Travel Writing/Photography/Film/Art. This excellent quality digital magazine (Dave Eggers and others have been published in it) features a fall 2014 writing contest judged by Lorin Stein, editor of the Paris Review, with a deadline of January 1.

Writing I'm working on now
We are looking for young, old, novice and veteran voices to send us stories that possess a powerful sense of place. Stories can be fiction or nonfiction, but please indicate which genre at the top of your manuscript. Entries should be between 800-5,000 words and must not have been previously chosen as a winner in another contest. Previously published work is accepted, but again, please indicate this. Every submission will be read blind, so anyone can win...

And... I also happened upon cahoodaloodaling: a collaborative publication, with an upcoming theme:
Issue #15 – Travelogue
We are seeking submissions inspired by unique destinations, travel, international adventures, or simply the comforts of home. Send in your best works of “place” by the end of the year. Remember, we are open for all styles and forms of visual and audio art, poetry, literature, as well as essays, non-fiction, screenplays, collaborations and even letters home. Make us stand up and take notice.
Submissions due 12/31/14. Guest editor April Michelle Bratten of Up the Staircase Quarterly. Issue live 1/31/15
I've got several pieces in various drafts from my 2001-02 travels in New Zealand and Australia to consider for revision for Nowhere. And I've got a piece I've already revised that won a prior contest at Travelers' Tales and... voila!... cahoodaloodaling accepts previously published work.

With a few other story ideas, publications and deadlines before and after the new year, I'm set to go.

Dear Readers: Any writing goals for the new year? Whether you're working on first drafts or you're aiming for polishing and publication, consider setting yourself a schedule with a timed writing or word count per day or per week.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Why am I telling this story? What does it mean?

With several essays simmering or sizzling on the stove, shifting between back and front burners, the question I revisit again and again is: "What is this essay's central theme? What is the takeaway for the reader? What does it all add up to?" It is usually at that point in organization or revision that I get stuck in my writerly rut.

While it can sometimes be good to set a piece aside for a time and return with renewed perspective, I wonder if I'm prone to giving up too hastily, stuffing another unfinished work into the file drawer before giving it enough time to stew.

Suzanne Roberts, the winner of Creative Nonfiction's Fall 2014 "Mistakes" essay contest, has this to say in an interview about her prizewinning piece. It's a good reminder to stick with it and let the story emerge.
E.M. Forster said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” That is one of the things about writing: there is no way to know what something means, at least for me, until I write it and re-write it, asking the same questions again and again: Why am I telling this story? What does it mean? Where can I go deeper? What is the story behind the story?

Friday, December 5, 2014

Forthcoming Publication in Creative Nonfiction

Last week, just after Thanksgiving, I was filled with gratitude for receiving the following letter from Hattie Fletcher, the Managing Editor at Creative Nonfiction magazine:

Thank you very much for your submission to Creative Nonfiction's "Memoir" issue, and for your patience during our lengthy review process. I'm writing now with both bad news and good news. 

We received more than 1,700 submissions and after much discussion have decided to publish a special double-length issue, which will be published in March. The bad news: unfortunately, "Crisis" is not among the essays we're accepting for the issue. 

The good news: we received so many great submissions that we have decided to accept another issue's worth of essays from among them. This would be issue #57 / Fall 2015, and would be organized loosely around the theme of jobs/occupations. We think "Crisis" will be a great fit for this issue, and hope you're amenable to its being included. 
I hope that the good news makes up for the bad...

It certainly does! No matter that it took six months to review my essay and will take another 10 months or so to put it in print. I guess that's the reality of the publishing world... the more competitive the lit mag, the lengthier the route from submission to publication can be (or, in this case, postponing for a future issue since they were inundated with entries this year).

According to Clifford Garstang, who voluntarily compiles annual Pushcart Prize rankings of literary journals, CNF has averaged a rank of 21 (out of hundreds of lit mags) to publish in Pushcart Press in the past three years. But aside from that prestige, I'm pleased to have my work accepted in a well-established and visible magazine. From the website:

Creative Nonfiction is the voice of the genre. Every issue is packed with new, long-form essays that blend style with substance; writing that pushes the traditional boundaries of the genre; notes on craft; micro-essays; conversations with writers and editors; insights and commentary from CNF editor Lee Gutkind; and more. Simply put, CNF demonstrates the depth and versatility of the genre it has helped define for almost 20 years.

After nine rejections, my essay about working at a rape crisis center in my '20s has found a home.


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Condensing word count: an exercise in economy

In graduate school I got so accustomed to turning in the required 10- to 20-page submissions that all of my essays now tend to stretch to great lengths. Lucky for me, most literary journals accept works of 4-5,000 words. But when I recently decided to submit something to The East Bay Monthly with a word limit of just 900 (but a circulation of 62,000), I accepted the challenge to condense.

Scroll down and click on the link for "Big Brother" to view the result, online and in print this week!

Put down that Smartphone. Go ahead: Add an extra dollop of whipped cream to your hot cocoa, and let that lap-warming cat get comfortable. Time to settle in for seven very nice reads on a theme, "Something That Disappeared."

The Monthly solicited essay submissions from Bay Area writers for the annual winter literary issue, sharing these chosen few to share. This theme seemed well suited for contemplation and inspiration and prompted essayists to spin yarns and remembrances in unpredictable directions.

This charming collection include prose recounting a wild goose chase for lost keys, the pains of family disruption, an adios to youth, the bittersweet challenge of role reversal, the karma of bike theft, a Moonie conversion, and the wholesale hewing down of redwoods. They're funny and poignant, sassy and heartbreaking, even plucky, suspenseful and deeply thought. Well done.

Thanks so much to all who sent in submissions; narrowing the field was not an easy task, pleasurable as the submissions were. The good news is that The Monthly offers essay contests twice a year.

By L.J. Cranmer
A Berkeley housewife searches--and searches and searches--for her keys.

Loss of Place
By Anne Fox
An Oakland copyeditor recalls what being uprooted after fourth grade was like.

Start the Commotion
By Wendy Winter
A record store Dude drives a 40-year-old woman to tears in this reflection on lost youth.

By Caroline M. Grant
A San Francisco writer contemplates familial role reversal as she cares for her aging mother.

One Bike, Two Bikes, Not Bikes, New Bikes
By Kathy Hrastar
An Oakland writer muses on the karma of bike theft.

Big Brother
By Nicole R. Zimmerman
A Penngrove writer recalls losing her brother to the Moonies.

The Giving Trees
By Russell Yee
A third-generation Oaklander mulls over mass redwood clear-cutting and his own history.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Creating a Spreadsheet for Writing Submissions

I've heard many writers bemoan the business aspects of writing, but I was a girl who loved playing office--arranging those papers, pencils and pens each fall before school began, and filling notebooks with scribble before I knew how to write. I enjoy researching publications where I can send my work (what a great procrastination technique!) and have finally started creating systems to keep track of it.

So when I sat with my latest printed pages and felt that awful feeling of being stuck as my inner editor examined and questioned--"what is this piece really about? what is the focus? where is this going? what's the reader to take away from this? is this the right timing to consider this piece or would it be better to set it aside and work on something else?"--I switched tasks. I completed the writing submissions spreadsheet I've intended for ages to make: an excel sheet I can update.

My tendency is to look at the glass half empty, to see what's missing from my writing life, to beat myself up over all the time wasted, the projects unfinished, the essays unsent. Writing down this list of essays and short stories I've written, most of it from grad school (and there's more that didn't fit into the screen shot), and seeing that I have been working on revisions as well as sending out work (and meeting success), is certainly a motivator for tackling the list and taming that inner critic.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Creating a Family Portrait in Collage

Permission of Susie Stonefield Miller
Yesterday, before I attended my final writers' support workshop, I went to a first annual Festival of Yiddish Culture, sponsored by my local synagogue. Two blissful hours were spent inside the artist studio of Susie Stonefield Miller, who rents a large and lovely art space in the building and offers year-round drop-in art journaling workshops for women, tween girls and teens. (See Susie's amazing art journal pages here.)

During her free-flowing 2-hour workshop on creating a Jewish family heritage collage, with Yiddish music as a backdrop, I collected far more materials than I could possibly use: scrapbook papers, photo corners, Ellis Island records, New York photos and vintage pictures of Jewish immigrant families, etc. Susie had plentiful boxes full of these papers, photocopied photos and other things like rubber stamps and tape available for our use. The task of sorting and arranging images at first felt a bit overwhelming, not unlike re-arranging words on a page, but then I welcomed the task of creating a family narrative with visual imagery, using found materials--a watercolor tree, a locket, a postcard, a luggage tag, Hebrew writing--to enhance my own family photos to create this triptych:

That's my grandfather's father, Hyman Zimmerman, on the bottom left, and his parents above--Morris, born in 1850, and Chaszka Zelda, born in 1852. My grandfather's mother, Dora Gabarsky, stands with her three eldest children on the bottom right (before they came to America from Poland?) with her mother, Hasza Tikochinsky, above. According to our cousin Donna, the family genealogist, "the family immigrated separately - Hyman first, then Dora and the 3 oldest girls. All documents have their names in Yiddish." 

This middle photo shows both parents with their 10 children; my grandfather as a young boy stands in the middle. (He was born in Brooklyn.) The photo below it is the 1988 family reunion.

I only recently came upon these photos from Donna at our 2011 family reunion in Cleveland, Ohio--with five generations including my grandfather, Jack Zimmerman, and his two remaining sisters at that time, my Aunt Hen and Aunt Ruthie. It was the last time I saw my beloved Grandpa Zim. He died soon after at the age of 96, followed by his sister Hen at 99.

My Great Aunt Ruthie--just a baby sitting on her father's lap in the portrait--is thriving at 92 years young. She still lives independently, tells family stories and enjoys visits from her own great-grandchildren. Here she is with one of them this summer. I come from a long line of longevity!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Creative Writing and How to Submit Essays, Short Stories, and Poetry for Publication

Last week I received encouraging news about a current essay making its submission rounds:
Thank you for submitting your work for Creative Nonfiction’s "Memoir" contest, and for your patience during our lengthy review process. We received more than 1700 submissions and, as you might expect, reading them all has been a challenge for our tiny staff. At this point, we are still considering approximately 4% of the submissions for publication, and your essay, "Crisis", is among those. Congratulations! We hope to make final decisions regarding the contest winners and the pieces to be published by end of the year. 
Keep in mind, these reminders that my writing is on the right track came after the essay was already rejected from nine other publications or contests including The Pinch, Pilgrimage, Gulf Coast, Arts & Letters, Narrative Magazine, Fourth Genre, and Fifth Wednesday Journal. Aside from Creative Nonfiction, I'm still awaiting notification from Bellevue Literary Review and The Missouri Review.

Photo courtesy of Eureka Books
Wondering how to find lit journals and submit your creative nonfiction, fiction, or poetry? An article at The Millions argues that "creative writing should be taught as an art, and as a business":

"This is the inside joke of creative writing programs in America. We know creative writing doesn’t make money, and yet we continue to graduate talented writers with no business acumen. At best, it is misguided. At worst, it is fraudulent... It is the responsibility of writing teachers to help students become better on the page, but also to teach them what to do with those pages."

Well, it's no secret that most literary magazines don't have funds to pay writers well (or at all), unless you're lucky enough to win a $1,000 prize, but I agree that the "business" of writing is often left out of programs more focused on craft. I think it could easily be interwoven into any writing curriculum, simply by reading literary journals in classes (my classes most often focused on book-length works); looking up calls for submissions, contests and submission guidelines; and using themes or even things like page/word count as structures.

For example, Bellevue Literary Review, published by the NYU School of Medicine, calls itself "a journal of humanity and human experience" and the annual prizes "award outstanding writing related to themes of health, healing, illness, the mind, and the body."

Sometimes there isn't a focused theme or element, but guidelines tell what type of writing is considered, such as:

Creative Nonfiction is seeking new work for an upcoming issue dedicated to memoir. Creative Nonfiction editors will award $1,000 for Best Essay and $500 for Runner-up. The judges want stories that are honest, accurate, informative, intimate, and—most important—true. Submissions must be vivid and dramatic; they should combine a strong and compelling narrative with an informative or reflective element. Essays must be previously unpublished and no longer than 4,000 words. 

If you'd like to learn more about How To Submit Your Writing to Literary Magazines, read this article at Aerogramme Writers' Studio, borrowed from Neon literary magazine. It's got everything from how to find a suitable publication to writing a cover letter and bio, to tracking submissions. Best of luck!

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