Reaching for the Moon

Posted on 16 April 2014 | 1 response

A few weeks ago, when I browsed through the film selections for the Cleveland International Film Fest, I stopped at the entry for Reaching for the Moon. I didn’t know much of anything about the director, and I hadn’t read any reviews or even viewed the trailer, but I already knew I’d buy a ticket — all because the movie is about Elizabeth Bishop.

Considering my short story, “To Elizabeth Bishop, with Love,” (published in Inkwell and part of Living Arrangements), it should be no secret that I’m an Elizabeth Bishop fan and am interested in her biography. So that’s how I came to sit alone in a theater in downtown Cleveland on a Sunday morning, all during my precious time off from school, to watch Elizabeth come to life on the screen.

The film is not without its faults. A predictable framing structure and some melodrama take away from some of the fine performances by the leading ladies. Even so, I was glad to sit for a few hours immersed in Bishop’s life and love and take in her lines like, “Me? When I hear my own poetry, I’m mortified” and “This is why you shouldn’t meet authors” and “I have always felt alien” and “I already have a commitment to pessimism. A pessimist is never disappointed.” Then there’s Elizabeth’s restraint and social awkwardness, and the fact that she’s more comfortable making friends with a cat than conversation with her hosts. Doesn’t sound like anyone around here at all, right?

In any case, the film is based on the Brazilian novel Rare and Commonplace Flowers, a book I have officially added to my reading list.

So tell me: What mortifies you?

 

 

Congratulations! You’ve received another rejection.

Posted on 5 April 2014 | 4 responses

When you get a rejection, is your immediate reaction to shout “Yes!” before opening a spreadsheet so you can triumphantly record that rejection in all its “Sorry, not for us” glory?

No? Then you, my friend, are not participating in a literary rejection contest.

I started a rejection contest last fall for fiction writers in Bowling Green’s MFA program. The premise is simple: Pay $5 to enter, track all fiction rejections received in a specific time period, and the writer who receives the most rejections during that time frame wins the pot of money. We record our rejections in a Google doc spreadsheet, where we also share the names of the journals that rejected us to help other participants consider new markets.

We only have a few weeks remaining before the contest period ends, and it looks like I have almost no chance of winning the prize. (And yes, losing a contest designed around failure is a sort of prize of its own.) But even if I didn’t send out quite enough stories to be a real contender, the contest did persuade me to submit more than I would have otherwise. I’ve been in a dry spell on the submission front – I seem to be in a producing mode rather than a submitting mode, which is normal for me and not at all a problem, but the contest encouraged me take the time to submit a few of my polished stories that are ready to go. As a result, I’ve received two acceptances.

Of course, contests like this one can have a few downsides. There’s always a chance that even a friendly, low-stakes rejection contest could encourage writers to submit work that isn’t ready to journals that aren’t appropriate for that work. So if you’re interested in starting a rejection contest of your own, make sure the participants are ready to play in good faith and with good sense. (That wasn’t a problem here; the writers in this program really know their stuff.) I also wonder if, in the future, it might be fun to make writers subtract a rejection or two from their numbers every time they get an acceptance. For example, one frontrunner in our contest might end up receiving both the most rejections and the most acceptances, which is actually kind of wonderful, but could it take the joy out the contest when the biggest loser is also the biggest winner? I don’t know.

Assuming the other writers in the program are interested next year, I hope to continue this contest and carry the torch of rejection into 2015. Because even though I’ll surely lose this round and probably the next one, the fact that the contest has changed my reaction to rejections from disappointment to excitement is priceless. So I encourage you to give it a shot, too — gather your closest writing buddies, whip up some rules, and let the rejections roll. Worst of luck to you all.

Photo: Sean MacEntee

AWP 2014: Full Disclosure from The Sun

Posted on 22 March 2014 | 3 responses

The first thing you should know about The Sun’s AWP panel, “Full Disclosure: How to Spill Your Guts without Making a Mess,” is that nearly every panelist took issue with the session’s title. According to moderator Krista Bremer, “Full disclosure is not a memoir’s job. It’s not an autobiography, nor is it about spilling your guts. That’s what belongs in your diary.”

Bremer and the other panelists – Lidia Yuknavitch, Cary Tennis, Marion Winik, and The Sun editor and publisher Sy Safransky – discussed the ethics of nonfiction, truth, memory, making readers uncomfortable, and more. Here’s a quick look at what some of these panelists had to say:

Krista Bremer:

“Memoir is about speaking the plain/obvious truths we avoid speaking to protect ourselves.”

“Your work, if worthy, will have consequences.”

“[Memoirists need] a large, large dose of humility, to understand the fallibility of memory, and to be humble about how ego creeps in.”

“Always be harder on yourself [in your writing] than others.”

“A memoir is situation plus story. Story is what you have come to say about the living. It’s not enough to have lived.”

“We’re afraid to show our weaknesses, but our weaknesses are a great conduit to building connections [with readers].”

“Writing your memoir hardens your past. . . This process puts a stop to a fluid thing and makes a hard thing.”

Lidia Yuknavitch:

“Writing The Chronology of Water nearly killed me. That’s not hyperbole. But it also brought me back to life.”

“There are modes of fiction in nonfiction writing, and modes of imagination in memory . . . the artful lie is a space of creativity.”

Lidia also offered four tips for aspiring memoirists:

  1. There’s no such thing as “memoir.” Instead, it’s “wemoir,” the story of all of us together trying to survive life. Once a writer realizes this, the “me-ness” of a memoir will start to fall away. Find the place where your story hits other people.
  2. Sometimes the solution lies in form, not content. Art and the form of telling are as important as conflict in memoir.
  3. Render pathos differently. We are saturated through media with pathos. We’re trained to hit highest form of pathos in 45 minutes. In an essay, this level of pathos might feel too heavy. Redistribute it.
  4. Quit thinking about “the truth.” Memory itself is a lie. Memory does not work in a linear form. No single one truth is available to us. Shoot for authenticity of the experience.
  5. De-ego yourself. Your ego is not your friend. It’s in your way. You’re writing to bridge yourself to others, not highlight yourself.

Marion Winik: 

“Memoir is an underground railroad of what people are really going through.”

“There’s no objective TMI [in memoir]; it’s who’s hearing it. To some it’s egregious while others need to hear it.”

“Everyone’s going to find the thing that grosses them out. There’s something that grosses you out and something you desperately need to hear.”

Sy Syfransky:

“Don’t try to publish something too soon. At least in the old days, you had to walk to the post office. It’s important to write something when you need to write it. Then wait – maybe a day, maybe a year [before submitting].”
“It’s my strong belief that if someone does not have a strong allegiance to the facts, fiction is available to them.”

“We usually know when we’re writing something a bit unreliable.”

“Reality is bigger than all of our stories about it.”

“Oscar Wilde said, ‘Only the shallow know themselves.’”

Finally, Cary Tennis described the act of writing (or trying to write) creative nonfiction as “the never-ending chores of the moral imagination.”

Is reality bigger than your story? Are you spilling your guts and making a mess? How’s your moral imagination chore list coming along? Do I win the award for latest AWP recap?

Photo: David Bruce

AWP 2014: Stoking the Fire When Success Eludes

Posted on 19 March 2014 | 4 responses

Raise your hand if once upon a time you had a certain vision for your writing career – a vision that so far has not come true. The first novel published by a major press, the awards or reviews, the national book tour, or even getting an agent to simply respond…any of that sound familiar? And maybe, after some time and when viewed in the light of publishing reality, your vision started to sound a little unrealistic? Or maybe even impossible? If so, then this is the post for you.

This belated and penultimate AWP recap is near and dear to my heart because it surrounds a panel that included our own Teri. The session, “Stoking the Fire: Maintaining the Passion for Writing When Success Eludes,” is one a lot of writers can relate to. We all know how discouraging this business can be, so hearing the panelists’ struggles and tenacity was illuminating.

In addition to our own amazing Teri Carter, panelists included Joe Ponepinto (moderator), Kobbie Alamo, and Q Lindsey Barrett, all of whom discussed the hopes they had for their writing careers in the beginning, where they are now, and where they hope to be in the future:

On expectations, large and small: “I didn’t think I would an Oprah pick, but I did think I’d be published. That dream has not been realized.” –Kobbie. Her first book was rejected, her second got an agent but did not sell, and the third went through three rewrites in three years but ultimately did not sell. She’s now working on her fourth.

“I published my first story – it won a prize, actually – and I thought [my writing career] would take off. I didn’t know it would take more than four years to publish again.” –Teri

“I was naïve. I thought everyone loved books and reading books.” –Joe

On the power (and pitfalls) of ego: “My biggest strength as a writer and also my weakness is my ego. I really believe in my writing – and you have to.” –Joe

On the necessity of failure: “I realized it was a huge failure, but the book was not a waste of my time. I didn’t have my focus yet.” –Teri on her first book, which received negative feedback from a beta reader and caused her to not look at the project or write for an entire year. During that year, however, she found her tribe of writing friends online. (And the rest, for those of you reading this who know Teri, is writing-friendship history.)

On facing the competition: “Try rejecting things [as a journal editor] and saying it’s not good enough, it’s not good enough, it’s not good enough…and then go to your own work and think it is good enough.” –Q Lindsey, who sees scores of worthy manuscripts cross her desk as the assistant fiction editor of Hunger Mountain, but there’s only room to print five or six stories in each quarterly issue. Realizing 1) how competitive publishing is and 2) just how special a piece must be to get an acceptance can offer writers a new perspective on their own work.

On persistence and reality: “I thought my MFA was my ticket [to publication]. Maybe the magic ticket is persistence.” –Kobbie

“If you’re writing for validation, every rejection is going to be like pouring lemon juice in your cuts.” –Q Lindsey

“I have realized I may not make it as a writer, and it’s not because I’m not good enough.” –Kobbie

On creating and supporting a writing community: “Stay away from people who think writing is a tedious habit. Surround yourself with people who ask what you’re working on, not what you’ve published.” –Q Lindsey

“It’s 50/50 for me – I write half the time and support others in groups the rest of the time.” –Teri

Focus on the Process. “I worked in corporate sales, where they only care about results [instead of] process. I still want to publish, but now I’m in less of a hurry.” –Teri

On the possibility of self publishing: “I’m so grateful some of my earlier stuff is not published. So many people are in a rush to get published. Having that screening device is not always bad. –Q Lindsey

“I like the gatekeeper.” –Kobbie

“I’m holding out. –Teri

I have to say, for such a potentially bleak topic, these panelists handled the subject matter well. They were honest and didn’t sugarcoat any of their disappointments, but they also didn’t leave me nearly as depressed as I have when leaving other publishing panels hosted by agents, editors, or published authors. (Most of the panels I’ve attended at writing conferences and events have been wonderfully helpful, but I’d be lying if I said one or two didn’t make me want consider diving headfirst off a cliff.) I for one will be rooting for all of these writers. In the wise, optimistic words of Teri: I’m holding out.

What were your expectations then, and what are they now?

Photo: Vibrant Spirit

AWP 2014: Say Goodbye to Boring Readings

Posted on 14 March 2014 | 1 response

In the wise words of the moderator of an AWP session that considered ways to spice up the average literary reading: “Readings can be a wonder and a delight and an inspiration, and they usually are, but sometimes we get trapped [at a boring reading].”

Look, I love going to readings and hearing authors read their own work. That’s great, and I’ve definitely been spellbound by some amazing words at these events. But sometimes, your average reading can be a bit dull. I for one am interested in exploring fun and alternative reading ideas – so AWP’s “Don’t Just Stand There and Read: Literary Events That Go Beyond the Usual” was definitely the session for me.

So far, my own experimentation has been limited to a book launch party with beer, wine, cupcakes, and chocolate-covered potato chips; an event featuring a PowerPoint presentation that included embarrassing pictures and memories from my young writing career; and a more traditional type of reading that offered door prizes. I also had the opportunity to watch one of my stories read aloud by an actor at Stories on Stage in Sacramento. In short, I’m definitely on board with unique, interactive, or otherwise engaging literary events, so I was happy to pick up some additional tips at this AWP session, which promised an antidote to the common but sometimes dull “just stand there and read” literary event.

Panelists included Jamie FitzGerald from Poets & Writers (moderator), Teresa Carmody, Joshua Raab, and Karen Finneyfrock. I had to leave the session early because of a scheduling conflict, but I managed to pick up some great tips and ideas nonetheless:

Set your reading to music. Take it from Karen, who was involved in a reading that partnered with the Seattle Orchestra, which performed an original score as a poet read: People who don’t go to the average literary event are more likely to go to this type of event. It’s different, it’s interesting, and it brings people in.

Encourage a little literary mingling. Karen also described a fun game that works for larger crowds. First, she created a set of nametags that include poetic/literary questions (she sifted through Paris Review interviews to find some good poetic questions). Then, she created another set of nametags with poetic/literary answers. Each guest received a nametag and was encouraged to mingle to find someone with an answer/question that could correspond to his or her nametag. The paired nametags were then displayed on a wall. This is a fun exercise that gets people to mingle and stretch their metaphorical muscles – though it might be a bit of a challenge for those who are more literal-minded and are bothered by the fact that there are no right or wrong answers.

Let the audience participate. Theresa curates reading events like art galleries. In one event she described, writers created literary work on gallery walls, and the public was then invited to add their own work to the space. A performance at the end of the event spoke to all the work created that night.

When planning a book launch party, ask yourself, “What is my purpose here tonight?” For her poetry collection launch, Karen wanted her event to feel like a show. She charged $5 admission (which amounted to a $5 discount on the book) and had a band, an accordion, and a ukulele player. For her novel release, however, she thought a different type of event would be more appropriate – so she hosted a free event that featured a short, simple reading and a fun Q&A.

Throw a literary carnival. Josh of the Newer York Press hosts events that trend toward the carnival rather than the typical reading. His arsenal includes any sort of interactive game that involves words: Mad Libs, free association, word searches, literary Rorschach tests, live painting/drawing interpretations of stories or poems, caricature stations that generate fake bios for guests on the spot, etc., all created based on the piece(s) being read. These interactive activities encourage audience participation so guests feel they had a hand in the creation process at the end of the night.

Your event should contain these three elements: interaction, performance, and the possibility of failure. According to Josh, these types of events entail some risk, and not everything might pan out – like his failed attempt to have a girl walking through the crowd calling out “Books for sale!” (a la “Get your ice cold drinks!”). But ultimately, the reward — a fun, interactive, and unusual event that puts zero guests to sleep — is in the risk.

How are you spicing up your readings?

Image (of a literary carnival I have to assume sadly only exists in the past): rachelkramerbussel

AWP 2014: Structuring the Novel

Posted on 12 March 2014 | 8 responses

While I spent most of my time in Seattle at AWP 2014 catching up with my far-flung writing buddies, sitting at the Mid-American Review booth, attending readings, meeting or catching up with writer friends (including our own Teri!), and drinking unicorn-themed cocktails, I also attended several excellent sessions. Here’s a (belated) glimpse of what I learned:

It’s no surprise that the first AWP session I gravitated toward involved structuring the novel. Novel structure continues to remain a mystery to me, something that either appears on its own by magic or requires meticulous planning that I continuously fail to accomplish.

If anything, this AWP session was a source of comfort – according to the published novelists sitting on the panel, novel structure is often just as inscrutable to them as it is to me. And, for the most part, they don’t outline. Hallelujah. The panelists included Tara Conklin, Jenny Shortridge, Melissa Remark, and Summer Wood. Here are a few tidbits from their larger conversation:

Jenny: The structure is the hardest, last piece to put into place … It’s befuddling how you build a story out of all this [raw material].

Tara: I outline after I’ve written.

Jenny: I don’t outline, either.

Summer: I have a blind race-to-the-end strategy. I kept worries about structure at bay until the draft was done.

Tara: I don’t have an MFA. I’m a seat-of-your-pants kind of writer.

Melissa, who quit her job in the film/TV industry to earn her MFA in fiction: The MFA is far better [suited] for short stories, but I wrote what I wanted – I wrote chapters as short stories.

Summer:The structure was integral to this particular story, not an external shape applied to the book.

Jenny: We all learn to write killer openings, but the middle … that’s where you feel you have no idea. I always wrote with the end in mind. (Jenny also shared her take on the traditional three-act structure, which includes adding an extra act and makes a lot of sense to me: Act 1: Set Up. Act 2: Seeking. Act 3: Engaging/Acting. Act 4: Denouement.)

Melissa: I had a huge story – I needed to find the present. The structure of the story will come out of the present.

Summer: By “plot” I mean pursuit of desire.”

Melissa: Pacing determines the structure.

Jenny: Every time I start a new novel, I’m starting all over again.

Check back later for more posts from AWP 2014!

Photo: umer malik

Gingerbread Garden

Posted on 10 March 2014 | No responses

I’m on Spring Break, which is glorious. Spring Break might make it possible for me to finally type up my AWP notes — because there’s nothing people love more than reading notes from a conference that was over three weeks ago. But still.

For now, I’d like to share my short-short story, “How to Tend a Balcony Garden,” which was recently published by Gingerbread House, an online publication for poetry and fiction with a magical focus. Here’s the first paragraph of my piece of flash:

First, realize that this is not the country. This is not the great stretch of green-yellow-gold fields, the big sky, the whole world. This is the city. This is a concrete balcony. This is a pile of pots that you bought and pots that you found and pots you inherited when other plants died. This is air cut with noise and smog and the cigarette smoke that drifts up from the apartment below.

Be sure to check out the rest of the issue, too, to get your fix of magic for the day.

Image: Derek Diaz

 

 

Seeing Things As They Are: Zadie Smith on Writing, Reading, and Escaping the Self

Posted on 6 March 2014 | No responses

I still have quite a lot of catching up to do on this blog – specifically, I have multiple AWP recap posts in the hopper – but for now, I’d like to share some wisdom from Zadie Smith, who read in Toledo last night. My MFA cohort and I piled into a few cars and headed to the Stranahan Theater to hear Smith read her essay “Why Write,” which considers challenges today’s writers face. Here’s a slice of what she had to offer, both in her essay and in her Q&A:

On feeling stuck behind the times: To say you’re a writer in the 21st century is like saying “I like gaslights” or “I’m a town crier.”

On hard times: Is it really harder to write now than it used to be? The truth is, writers always felt neglected.

On writers vs. readers: At my readings, people come because I’m a writer and they are too. They identify as writers, not as readers.

On feeling “despair” when we write: “Despair” is a literary thing to say. To say, “When I sit in front of the computer, I feel a bit pointless,” is more realistic.

On managing the intimidating writing process: I write to simply make this sentence.

On balancing teaching, writing, mothering, reading, and more: Some weeks, none of it goes well for anybody.

On the virtues of flying: It’s hard to travel to be away from my kids, but I have that time on the plane to read.

On finding the time to write: I had to cut down on the online life. I can’t have it [the Internet] completely embedded in my life . . . It’s amazing how much time you waste online. Now that I only have 4-5 hours [to write], I can’t Google for two hours. I have to get to it faster.

On feeling confident in her own work: I don’t feel what I do is good. I don’t have that feeling. I often think it’s no good. That feeling doesn’t go away . . . I think it’s a lifelong thing.

On why it’s hard to feel that confidence: You always start over with a blank page. Clichés and idiocy and mistakes are always available to you.

On what made her become a writer: My mother had as many books in the house as possible. That’s the stuff you need if you’re going to be a writer. There’s no mystery to it.

On her children: I don’t want them to become writers.

On reading vs. writing: Reading is much more important [to me] than writing.

On what it means to be a writer: Writing lets you have the one thing that society offers in theory and obliterates in practice: self-determination. When I write . . . my self disperses. I can be everyone in fiction. Writing is a de-selfing activity.”

And last but not least:

On why we write: Why write? Because you desire to see things as they are.

For a more in-depth look at Smith’s reading, see “Zadie Smith Puts Value Back in Written Word.” And let it be known that while I was compiling this blog post, I set my stove top on fire (we’re talking a full-flame, smoke-alarm fire) because I was so engrossed in Smith’s words and didn’t realize I’d turned on the wrong burner. Everything’s okay now, but consider yourselves warned: words (and obliviousness) can start fires.

MAR’s My Little Pony Writing Contest

Posted on 22 February 2014 | 4 responses

So a few orders of business! First, I will be at AWP in Seattle this year, so if you’re going, speak up and let’s try to meet up. And whether you’ll be in attendance or not, you should really consider the special contest Mid-American Review is running…especially if you were a fan of My Little Pony in the 80s (or still are today). I present to you…

Mid-American Review‘s Magical My Little Pony Writing Contest

Writing is magic. At least it is at AWP 2014, when Mid-American Review will host a special contest for the best My Little Pony poem or piece of flash fiction!

The magical details: Write a poem or flash fiction piece (under 500 words) about the glories of My Little Pony. Take that theme as you wish and have fun with it. Next, stop by Booth V3 at the AWP 2014 bookfair by Friday, Feb. 28 by 3 p.m. to submit your My Little Pony literary masterpiece. Legible handwritten entries will be accepted; electronic entries can be sent to lauwalt@bgsu.edu with “My Little Pony Writing Contest” as the subject line. Be sure to include your name, phone number, and email address somewhere on your entry.

The glittery prize: Winners will be selected at the MAR booth in the AWP bookfair at 5 p.m. Friday, Feb. 28 and will receive a free, one-year subscription to Mid-American Review. All entries may be considered for publication on MAR’s new blog.

Let the magic begin.

♥ But wait, there’s more! Mid-American Review is also hosting a joint event and reading with Cincinnati Review and Ninth Letter at Unicorn Seattle (in the Narwhal room, that is) on Thursday, Feb. 26 from 6:30-8:30pm. Come join me and have a drink called the Hellicorn or Rainbow Brite or Unicorn in Pear Adise or, of course, a My Little Pony.

The Teapot Project

Posted on 17 February 2014 | 4 responses

The last thing I expected to do last Sunday was wrap stuff in twine and then shellac it, but sometimes, that’s how life goes.

I was in need of a new teapot for my little college hovel after my adorable but cheap glass one broke. As much as I needed a replacement to make my six to eight daily cups of tea, I also was reluctant to spend too much on a new teapot. Enter Cleveland’s fine thrift shop scene, where I manged to score the above teapot for a only a couple of bucks.

True, it’s not the most attractive teapot in the world. It needed a good scrubbing, and the handle was covered in dirty, falling-apart plastic, but I figured that could be fixed. This is where Peter’s genius comes in: he suggested I rewrap the handle with twine and then shellac it.

Done and done. Here’s how it went down:

Here’s original the teapot with its falling-apart handle.

 

The first step: Peel off that plastic and wrap
the handle with some humble twine.

 

Next, gather your materials and prepare to shellac.

 

Let the painting begin. Use at least three coats of shellac.

 

Ta-da! The finished product.

Thanks to Peter and his twine-tastic idea, my writing sessions at Bowling Green are now tea-riffic. Sorry. Must be all the caffeine I’ve been drinking.

If you can’t get enough stories about my caffeine receptacles, last year’s Mugging for the Camera post is for you.

What are you making?

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