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!

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."

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