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!

Monday, October 13, 2014

San Francisco Litquake and Lit Crawl 2014

Litquake, San Francisco's literary event of the year, is happening as I write. If I had the energy to hop into my car at the end of a weekday and travel south I would, but I returned last night from a 3-day weekend (and 9-hour drive round-trip) to Humboldt County, visiting a friend where I used to live. We headed north to the mouth of the Klamath River, where we stayed overnight at the historic Requa Inn, watching gray whales during our day hike along the Yurok trail alongside the Pacific and observing two bald eagles swoop low over the river as they fished while we ate our breakfast.

In case you're in the vicinity, check out this week's happenings, ending in the annual Lit Crawl:
The tenth annual Lit Crawl will span over three hours in the Mission District's Valencia Street corridor, featuring an astonishing 101 literary readings and events, including poetry, fiction, nonfiction, comedy and more, in bookstores, bars, galleries, restaurants, stores, cafés, community spaces, a bookmobile, a vibrator store, and a police station.
If I still lived on Valencia Street I'd run over right now to the Make-Out Room to hear Thaisa Frank shed her words of wisdom, then continue the next night to Vesuvio--which I passed by on the bus during many days in my youth and wondered what it was like inside--and on to Craigslist inspiration (I once tried my hand at a short story with a composite character based on my 3-month foray), and onward to Andrew's talk since he was a wonderful facilitator at Lit Camp this year... ah, if only...

Original Shorts: Plan C
Oct. 13, 7 PM at the Make-out Room
Six short story authors take on the challenge of writing an original short story using the theme “Plan C.” Stories about post-fallback-plan fallback plans.

Straight, No Chaser: Writers at the Bar
Oct. 14, 7 PM at Vesuvio Café
In what has become a Litquake tradition, hallowed North Beach watering hole Vesuvio Café opens its doors for an edgy and hilarious evening reading. This is a rare opportunity to glimpse authors performing new work in their natural habitat. 

The Best of Craigslist
Oct. 15, 7:30 PM at the Hattery
Join us for a hilarious, eye-opening evening of “found literature” culled from the best-ever postings of this legendary website. Seven Bay Area authors will read from craigslist’s greatest hits in all the classic categories: missed connections (“To the Crackhead Who Stole My Bicycle Wheel”), sale items (“Haunted Coffee Grinder for Sale”), and job postings (“Bong Operations Engineer”).

Andrew Sean Greer at California College of the Arts
Oct. 17, 6 PM at CCA
CCA’s MFA Program in Writing hosts a one-week Master Writer in Residence, a writer of prominence in fiction, poetry, or nonfiction to serve as a teacher and voice on trends and issues in writing and literature. The week culminates in a free, public reading/lecture by the resident.

Beyond Poop and Puberty: Presented by Rad Dad Magazine
Oct. 18, 6 PM at Elixir
Join the fathers (and one token mother), all contributors to Rad Dad Magazine, as they share stories about the beauty and complexity of parenting!

For the full list of Lit Crawl venues and schedule, you can download the map here.

Monday, October 6, 2014

How it feels to win a writing contest

This morning I received an announcement for the 10th Annual Contest Results from Black Warrior Review and wondered why I never received a rejection letter. Glad I looked at their list of winners and runners up (whom, of course, they alerted beforehand) because wasn't I surprised by the following:

We are also happy to announce the following finalists for each genre. Thank you all for submitting! This was a year full of amazing work. 

Nonfiction finalists:
Chelsea Clammer
Emily Geminder
Chiori Miya
Caroline Crew
April Freely
Jake Little
Nicole Zimmerman
Helen Degen Cohen
I've submitted this essay to numerous publications, and am still waiting for contest results from three: Bellevue Review, Creative Nonfiction (memoir issue) and The Missouri Review, whose email campaign I must say really worked to inspire submission. In three separate email blasts, they asked prior winners what it meant for them to win writing contests.

Here's an excerpt from a response. I hope it inspires you too to keep reading, writing and sending out your stuff when it's ready, even when you're feeling like there isn't a place for you:

Here’s how our 2013 Editors’ Prize winner in Poetry, writer Kai Carlson-Wee, responded:
“To be honest, when I received the news that I’d won The Missouri Review’s Editors’ Prize, I was in a fairly dark place. I hadn’t been published in over a year and had heard little response from the publishing houses and prizes considering my first book. I was feeling like there wasn’t any place for me in the publishing world and I was starting to question the personal vision I’d worked so hard to create. Of course, this feeling is not unique—many writers feel this way. You get rejected and rejected and rejected and it becomes very difficult not to take it too personally. But then, every once in a while, as if by magic, something clicks, and your work is admired by a sympathetic eye. And you’re invited to a cool Midwestern town to give a reading to a packed house. And you’re welcomed by a group of the most dedicated, gracious, hospitable editors you’ve ever met. And they all say they really love your work (and they mean it). And they put you! up in a swanky hotel for the weekend and treat you like a literary rock-star. And they promote a crazy video project you come up with. And they even give you a generous sum of money so that you can go to Japan and start work on your next book. And in the space of a weekend, the publishing world begins to feel like a world that you can belong to. And the smog of doubt you carried around in your chest for the last long year is—at least temporarily— lifted.”

Monday, September 29, 2014

Making Progress: Logging the Writing Hours

Photo credit: Nicole R. Zimmerman
Finally--a successful writing (i.e. revising) week! Logging my hours, but also keeping notes on the process, has been a tremendous help in keeping me motivated and focused. The first morning, I committed to a half hour, which turned into one. The second day, I put it off until late evening, and was amazed by how much gets done in a short time. My workload at my freelance job was low so I devoted the entire third day to writing and accomplished quite a bit. Here's a glimpse:

Monday: 1 hour

  • Read through essay on Scrivener
  • Moved parts around to play with structure
  • Took notes on what stands out in terms of themes and scenes
  • Challenge: trying to fit too much in one essay (currently 11,000 words!)
  • Bonus: feels good to start; surprised at strength of the writing

Tuesday: 1.5 hours

  • Took a 2.5-mile morning walk that brought insights about structure, tense and voice
  • Wrote an outline for the structure
  • Started tackling sections of prose
  • Challenge: still sorting out whether one essay or two, and what belongs in which
  • Bonus: it no longer feels insurmountable; I believe in this piece and trust in the process

Wednesday: 7 hours

  • Revised first 2,500 words (3 sections)!
  • Created a rough structure for the rest
  • Challenge: how to prioritize information in each scene, esp. w/ characterization 
  • Bonus: I'm totally immersed now and invested in this piece (hello, insomnia!)

I worked all day Thursday and left town for A Wrinkle in Time in Ashland Friday-Monday, but will bring along a printed version to fiddle with should I feel so inspired between plays and cafes (yes, I'm blogging this ahead of time). I even managed to submit an essay that's currently in circulation to The Missouri Review's Jeffrey E. Smith Editor's Prize (deadline: Oct 1). Look for more on this amazing literary journal, which includes print, digital and audio (including a weekly podcast) later.

In other news, the Review Review just wrote a review of Georgetown Review--that's a lot of review--in which my essay "Double Life" was a 2014 contest finalist. Here's what Christopher Lowe has to say about the winning poem and issue:
In “Savagery,” the winner of this year’s Georgetown Review Prize, Matthew Lippman presents us with a brief, diverse cross-section of humanity...Those lines are striking because they’re invested with both cynicism and hope for the human condition.  There is an acknowledgement of the sadness, pain, and hurt that we inflict – and that are inflicted upon us – but there is also that bewilderment at the possibility that it could be worse, that things aren’t always so dark.  Those counterpoints fuel much of the work in in the Spring 2014 issue of Georgetown Review, an issue that sprawls across 170 pages of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and art.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Way to Write is to Write: Writers Support Workshop, Session I with Petals & Bones

Yesterday was the first session of my Writers Support Workshop in Santa Rosa, just 20 minutes along a back road from my farm cottage. Four women writers gathered around a table after-hours at the Undercover Baking Agency in a newly hip corner of town: SOFA, or South A Street Arts District, featuring the highest concentration of artists' studios in Sonoma County, as well as the Spinster Sisters restaurant, where I had a bite to eat afterward and took more notes from the session.

Writing facilitator extraordinaire, Leilani Clark, coached us with a couple prompts that weren't typical of a writing workshop, since this one's really about finding ways to be accountable to our work rather than a focus on the craft itself, although we will be exchanging a bit of writing for feedback and suggestions. First, we listed what gets in our way, leading to 'failure' to write. Here's mine:

  1. Prioritizing everything else (work, finances, home projects, exercise, trip planning, emails, family, social life, recreation, house cleaning, gardening, etc.) before writing.
  2. No writing schedule. I leave it for after work or weekends (too busy, too tired, no time).
  3. Unrealistic expectations/ambitious goals create pressure to complete a finished, polished product that's publishable vs. approaching writing as daily or weekly exercise and practice.
  4. Creative writing at my desk at home, which I associate with writing for work
  5. Isolation: nobody is offering feedback or insisting I write (no deadlines)

After we each shared our laments on procrastination, Leilani validated the difficult nature of self-discipline: "No one's waiting for these essays to get out." Harsh as that may sound, it's the truth about writing, unless you're in a program or class... or support workshop. So we're to team up in pairs that check in each Sunday evening on the week's progress, as well as set goals for the week ahead.

My goal this week: delve into some interesting or problematic string to solve for half an hour each morning--before work begins. My fear is that I'll get so involved that half an hour won't be enough. But, hey, I've been working more than my minimum hours this month so there's wiggle room.

Leilani read aloud a poignant essay in the Poets and Writers column "Why We Write" about a writer whose father called her from India each morning to make sure she was writing until she finished her novel, which was finally accepted by a publisher the day her father died.

As an exercise, we wrote and shared our own "Why I Write." Mine took a surprising turn toward the copywriting I do for a living. What pushes me to write for pay are the billable hours I log, the deadlines documented on spreadsheets and the expectations of others who edit my work that gets posted weekly. When I count up the hours and multiply them by what I make, I think, "Wow, that wasn't so hard." But when it comes to creative work--that gut-wrenching, imaginative or stuck-in-the-mud mind-work on a piece that's personal--well, that's another story. Then it's entirely up to me.

Leilani reminded us that there's value to simply writing, even if it doesn't ever make it out into the world, and I found it freeing to reconsider how I want to approach the task. My ambitious goals can motivate me, but all too often they become obstacles in this game of self-sabotage. I want to bring the playful curiosity back into my writing work, which in itself is what feeds me.

Here's another tidbit from the magazine's "Writers Recommend" section:
"Writing is about getting to a place of deep mediation. The writer’s job is, at a fundamental level, all about finding the habits that will get you there—somehow. Human beings are, fortunately, trainable animals."   
                                                           -- Peyton Marshall, author of Goodhouse: A Novel
As Leilani said, "The way to write is to write."

Monday, September 15, 2014

Debut novelist and MFA colleague, Courtney Moreno, ready to launch "In Case of Emergency"

If you're in San Francisco tomorrow night, you may want to head on over to Booksmith for an evening of New Voices, New Stories: Exceptional Debuts from Writers to Watch. The writer to watch, in this case, is Courtney Moreno, a former USF alum from my MFA program whose writing has wowed me since the first time I heard her read during our initial summer session of 2010. Her debut novel is In Case of Emergency.

That year, Courtney's fiction was also nominated by the department for the AWP Intro/Journals project. After her 2009 LA Weekly cover feature article, "Help is on the Way," was chosen for The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010 anthology published by McSweeney's (click the link to buy her book online, hint hint!), the independent, SF-based publishing company asked her if she was working on anything. No agent. No query letters or synopses to submit while awaiting rejections. A writer's dream path to publication, no?

Our ragtag team celebrates turning in the tome!
Certainly. But nothing is ever as 'easy' as it seems. I do know that while the rest of us grad students each suffered through multiple revisions of an MFA thesis so it would be deemed acceptable by university standards, Courtney had to simultaneously transform hers into a first-draft novel worthy of a 'publishing powerhouse,' as an NPR interview with Dave Eggers describes McSweeney's evolution from just a 'quirky quarterly.' Not to mention the numerous, painstaking revisions she put in to create the polished result.

I'm excited to say that Courtney's 'knockout debut' has already met with much success. The hardcover hit stores last Tuesday, but the book's gathering steam with great reviews from Kirkus, Publisher's Weekly, and more. It made the Huffington Post's Best Books for Fall 2014 list:
"Reminiscent of Leslie Jamison's essay on medical acting in her collection The Empathy Exams, Courtney Moreno's book uses the coping mechanisms she learned while working as an EMT to color her narrator's painful past. Moreno confronts both physical and psychological trauma, expertly blurring the lines between the two."
And it's at the top of SF Weekly's Fall Arts 2014: What You Need to Read list:

" 'When conducting the triage of a multi-casualty incident, start by taking charge.' Thus begins Courtney Moreno's debut novel, which follows noob Piper Gallagher as she learns the ropes of the busiest Los Angeles emergency response unit. The narration, which reads like an instruction manual Gallagher has put together to prepare us to join the team, relays the traumas of the job, punctuating the seemingly counterintuitive hands-on lessons she learns ('do not treat; only label') with all-organic nuggets of wisdom: 'There's nothing as painful as desire; wanting something only reminds you of your shortcomings.' "

It's been a couple of years since I made my weekly Tuesday forays into the city to immerse in great literature, and it goes without saying that I'm beyond thrilled to take part in tomorrow's launch.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Reading, Writing and Scratching the Itch

Well, it's been one week since I blogged about getting back in the writing saddle, and I find I'm still struggling to straddle the obstacle of scheduling time.  In my defense, I did work 9-hour days T-F, and this week's plan is to hone those hours down so I can begin anew. Although I haven't yet sat at the keyboard (aside from copywriting hours), I awoke from 2-3:30 a.m. one night and spent it re-reading essays in my thesis manuscript. Something about that etherial time of night lends itself to imaginative meanderings of the mind, so I was able to sit with the pages I thumbed in my lap without judgment, but with curiosity. There are three essays with braided stories and my next task is to untangle them on Scrivener so that I can reweave the strands into something new.
My bedside pile of books and magazines

As always, deadlines help propel me toward my goals. I did sign up for the fall Writer's Inspiration + Support Workshop, which meets once a month for three months, starting Sept. 21. And there's a Sept. 22 deadline for a Creative Nonfiction contest on a theme that my particular story addresses:

For an upcoming issue, Creative Nonfiction is seeking new essays about WAITING. We’re looking for well-crafted true stories of delays, postponements, and pauses that explore and examine our relationship with time.

In the meantime, reading (and hearing others read) also serves as inspiration. Recently I went to a Get Lit event at one of the wine bars in my town, Petaluma. Among the three featured readers were Stefanie Freele, whom I've blogged about, and Daniel Coshnear, whose fiction class I took four years ago and whose book, Occupy and Other Love Stories, I wrote about for the Press Democrat. I purchased a book from each, and have been reading and enjoying Coshnear's short story collection, Jobs and Other Preoccupations, which offers much food for thought for rethinking and revising my own short fiction. And last week I bought the cartoon memoir Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, a laugh-out-loud but poignant portrait of aging in America by New York Times cartoonist Roz Chast. So, I didn't write, but I spent an entire afternoon reading in the park.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Finding Time for Writing: Strategies and Social Dilemmas for Scheduling or Stealing It

After perhaps my longest hiatus from blogging (and creative writing), this Labor Day I'm reassessing my time--and commitment to the craft--while battling party fatigue (a big bash took over our backyard yesterday, complete with a cornhole competition to the tunes of Pandora, when what I really wanted was to read in the hammock and listen to wind chimes). The order of the day is to realign my writing goals (revise-revise-revise and publish-publish-publish in lit journals), then figure out what every writer must: how to carve writing time into my schedule. And stick to it.

It's been exactly two years since I completed my MFA program, and I realize that I have yet to settle into any kind of writing routine since the dread of deadlines no longer looms each week as incentive. I've found some success in terms of a new career direction with copywriting/editing after a stint in journalism and teaching/tutoring, and I've published two essays in lit journals, with another currently in circulation. But now that I've got my bearings, I'm just not satisfied publishing only once a year.

I'm not talking about writerly ego, that hunger for recognition or validation that comes with your words in print (or online). What I really mean is that writing or revising only one essay or story per year for submission isn't satisfying my deepest heartfelt desire to create art and find a venue for its audience.

Rather than start today's quest like a schoolmarm with a yardstick and a list of recitations in hand that are sure to bring my bridge troll out from hiding, I delved into my latest issue of the Review Review, an endless source of inspiration and resource for a writer in any stage of her career, with a link to Australia's, where writer and single mother, Helen Addison-Smith notes:
'Writing takes time – great swathes of clean, empty time, unsullied by children or housework or deep worry about money or skincare routines. To be a writer is to be selfish enough to grab time and spend it churning words around, even though you are not getting paid very much, hardly anybody cares about what you’re doing, and even fewer people think that it’s any good.'
Judging by the reader responses, the challenge of finding these "great swathes" in which to "churn words around" isn't a unique phenomenon, especially (as the author argues) for women, and especially those raising young children, for whom stepping away from household tasks poses its own dilemmas. It's no wonder writer residencies are so popular, and that up to five times as many women as men apply for them, according to Peter Bishop, executive director of the Varuna Writers' Centre in Australia. Ironically, as stated in an online article at The Age, he's so busy with others' manuscripts that:
From time to time he will find a morning or an afternoon when he can work on his own novel but it is almost impossible to steal the time necessary.
If you're looking for some writing time away from your daily responsibilities, there are plenty of residencies to choose from. It's not even too late to apply for the women-only Hedgebrook Writers in Residence program, located on 48 forested acres of Whidbey Island, northwest of Seattle. Applications are due at midnight, September 3:

Residents are housed in six handcrafted cottages, where they spend their days in solitude – writing, reading, taking walks in the woods on the property or on nearby Double Bluff beach. In the evenings, they gather in the farmhouse kitchen to share a home-cooked gourmet meal, their work, their process and their stories. The Writers in Residence Program is Hedgebrook’s core program, supporting the fully-funded residencies of approximately 40 women writers at the retreat each year. 

As for me, I'm staring at my calendar now and trying to figure out where to schedule writing--like exercise, it often lingers on the periphery of my days and I want it to take a more central place. Although we do the majority of our writing as solitary beings, sometimes breaking out of isolation is what we need to crack open the conundrum of how to--whether it's how to approach an ending of a story or how to be accountable to our writing goals when grades or contest deadlines aren't enough. That's why I'm signing up for a local workshop run by Leilani Clark of Petals and Bones:

If you're looking for camaraderie and writing community, look no further. In this monthly workshop, you'll receive  support and inspiration to help you make progress on a writing project (all genres welcome!) whether that involves writing everyday for 20 minutes, or completing a set amount of words or pages. We will get the creative sparks flying with two short writing prompts, followed by check-ins and accountability on the previous month's writing goal(s). Plus, you'll get lots of resources and mini-craft talks from workshop facilitator Leilani Clark.

For now, it just may be the extra impetus I need to help me dive back in.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Chichen Itza, cenotes, and whale sharks--oh my!

Paper-pencil-pen will be on a hiatus for summer break in Mexico as my wife and I road trip around the Yucatan Peninsula for three weeks. Prompted by my copywriting career at Viator, where I've written multiple tours about swimming in cenotes (limestone sinkholes), exploring Maya archeological ruins and snorkeling with whale sharks, I was drawn to this spot between the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Ironically, I haven't booked any tours, since we're such independent travelers. But I'll be sure to take notes as I travel--and perhaps even pitch something upon return to Via or LA Times!

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