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!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Duotrope Submissions Tracker: "Rinse & Repeat"

Thank you for your recent submission to Gulf Coast. We appreciate your patience while we read your work. However, we're sorry to inform you that your work was not the right fit for us at this time. Thank you again for submitting, and good luck with all your writing endeavors.

The Gulf Coast Editors

My first publication by Travelers' Tales
It's just another day in the business of literary rejection. After submitting "Crisis" as my sample essay for my application to Lit Camp, I polished (and re-polished) the piece and sent it on its merry way. During the months of March and May I submitted to 10 literary journals. Since I'm pretty bad at keeping track of my submissions/rejections (needle-in-a-haystack acceptances I celebrate--yes, that's me with my first publication in 2009), I decided to try out Duotrope, "an established, award-winning writers' resource." Check out features like its publication search (you can customize searches of market listings and even compare response times and acceptance rates) and submissions tracker.

I signed up for the 7-day free trial and committed to a full-year subscription ($50, or just $5 a month, which might be the best route in retrospect). Here's what my submission tracker looks like:

In case your magnifying glass couldn't decipher the tiny text from my screen capture, it's basically a spreadsheet with columns for piece, publication, date sent, date rejected/accepted, type of response (I've got 4 of those lovely letters so far!), and how many days you've waited with bated breath. You can even filter your report by submission status, piece, market and year of submissions.

Even if you don't have any submissions to date, I encourage you to check out the Duotrope website. In their own words:

Like the shampoo bottle says, "Rinse and repeat." Keep writing, keep submitting. Learn to shake off rejections and accept constructive criticism. Celebrate your acceptances. You'll have many more to come!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Lit Camp 2014 and Post-Lit Camp Ennui (PLCE)

Well, it's been almost one month since I went to Lit Camp 2014, and it's taken about as long to shake off what one attendee labeled Post-Lit Camp Ennui (PLCE). One volunteer extraordinaire, Thea Sullivan (that darling dame in the photo) defined it with the following comments on Facebook:

Thea Sullivan, Travis Peterson and Matthew James DeCostner
Photo credit: Ian Tuttle

Common symptoms of PLCE: 
Changes in sleep habits
Mental fog
Unexplained sadness
Compulsive checking of Facebook
Continual "reliving" of past experience
Inattention to daily duties
Unrealistic desire to return to fantasy state involving witty conversation, intellectual stimulation, delicious food, festive cocktails, heartfelt connections, and the sense of having found one's "tribe".

Isabel and Nicole at a Lit Camp session
That tribe included 40 Lit Camp members plus several fantabulous volunteers (including founder Janis Cooke Newman) and a host of literary hotshots (editors, agents, writers) who graciously shared their expertise with us during panels, porch time conversations and daily writing workshops. While this formal learning added its usual enrichment to my literary arsenal, it was the informal gathering with said tribe--the ease of communication and depth of connectivity with likeminded individuals all seeking their way with words--that made the adjustment to the normal world so laden with listlessness, malaise and melancholy (all synonyms for 'ennui'). I've since recovered.

Photo credit: Ian Tuttle
Photo credit: Ian Tuttle
I got up early in the morning to swim in the spring-fed pool (solo), hiked the trail past chaparral in the Calistoga hills, heard the echo of Canada geese honking through the canyon, ate fresh meals sourced from the garden that served as our backdrop during sunny afternoons on the deck, fell into constant conversation on the writing life, and--of course--considered the craft of writing for several days, followed up with evening fun, including a much better than expected Lit Camp talent show.

Lit Camp also raised a total of $930 for 826 Valencia with the naming of the 2014 Lit Camp cocktail.

CC, Nicole and Isabel on Polaroid

Here's the recipe for this delicious drink, now known as The 700 Club, in case you have cause for celebration:

2 oz. Bummer & Lazarus Gin
1 oz. Fresh Lemon Juice, or the juice from one lemon.
½ oz. simple syrup
3 dashes Angostura bitters
Ginger Beer
Shake ingredients (not the ginger beer) with Ice and strain in to glass > Top off with Ginger Beer

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Mobile Phone Photo Exhibit: My Year in Pictures

In a departure from the writing emphasis at paper-pencil-pen, I'd like to share a few pictures submitted (and accepted!) to the Petaluma Arts Center's Mobile Phone Photography Exhibit: FonFoto, a juried exhibition of images photographed with cell phone cameras.

According to the website:
As the heated discussion over the capability, viability, credibility of the camera phone continues among photographers, many have embraced the technology and the all-in-one, multi-media lifestyle of the cellphone-toting imagist.
Smart phones are today’s newest medium in art. Combined with software applications, they have transformed contemporary art forms in an important way — they are accessible to all. This exhibition hopes to capture the amazing images of amateurs and professionals who snap, click and shoot with a mobile device.
The images I submitted follow the four seasons. (Consideration was given to unusual angles and app enhancements unique to cell phone cameras.) "Spring" was rejected, but I can bring in its replacement (below) with no guarantee whether or not it will be hung. Tomorrow I'll get them printed at a fine arts studio that prints on paper, canvas and even aluminum! If you're in the area, come to the Artists' Reception on May 10 from 4-6 p.m. or stop by the exhibit between May 9 -- July 6, 2014.

Summer: Santa Monica Pier

Fall: Apple Harvest

Winter: Frosted Windshield

Spring: Cherry Blossoms

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Journal Entry, Spring 2014

Last night, after stumbling to the bathroom, I glanced at the kitchen clock whose digital glow read 3:07 a.m. In the old days I could fall fast back to sleep; in fact, I was known among friends for my ability to doze deeply anywhere, at any time. Chalk it up to mid-life hormones or my wife's coughing or the incessant mind-spin I can't seem to shut off, especially in the middle of the night, but this was my third in a row that insomnia was my bed partner.

So I lay quietly, listening to the welcome rain (green fields! daffodils!) until my wife beside me broke the stillness with a reminiscence of the last time we awoke during a storm.

Nicole R. Zimmerman: Farm Tulips
We'd both been in the kitchen then, when thunder and lightning struck (rare here in northern California). The rumble and snap and flash startled us from our half-slumber so that she--nearly blind without her eyeglasses--ran straight into the yellow wall while my hip collided with the corner of the butcher block in our haste to escape to safety. Last night we laughed about our physical comedy routine and I said in a TV announcer voice, "On the next episode of Naked And Afraid," funny because we weren't dropped off in a remote wilderness but for one moment lost in our own quiet cottage at the edge of 80 acres.

I just can't seem to get used to the idea that in my job as a copywriter and copy editor, the inbox is permanently full. Even my wife, in a profession notorious for bringing work home, finds occasional respite in real breaks or the completion of end-of-quarter comments (which I'll edit this morning) for her middle-school science classes.

On the bright side, I'm getting a lot more reading done, for books are what I resort to on sleepless nights. Recently I began culling them from living room shelves, overgrown like anything in a house one has lived in for six years (my longest residency following a record 17 abodes in 20 adult years, not counting the half-year I spend road-tripping and the half-year backpacking Down Under).

Aside from issues of the Sun magazine and a brief stint with Annie Dillard (it was a slender book), I've spent most of my late night hours with Ann Patchett's This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, which said wife gave to me for Hanukkah and whose title has little to do with the book as a whole (with the exception of the title essay). It's a highly informative, entertaining and poignant essay collection--from a story on trying out for the LAPD to caring for her grandmother in her final decade.

So I'm awake again, writing in bed what I started in my head last night, ready--or not--for another day.

[Side note: since this entry was written I've moved on to Bee Season by Myla Goldberg. I'm getting up at 5:30 a.m. to catch a flight tomorrow to DC to visit my nephews and don't intend to read--or write--before then!]

Nicole R. Zimmerman: the three musketeers

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