AWP 2014: When Book Reviews Also Tell Stories

March 18, 2014 § 4 Comments

awp manGuest blog post by Leslie Salas on the AWP Panel, “All This and More: What Form of Creative Nonfiction is the Essay/Review?”

These four distinguished panelists had a lively conversation about the essay/review. Some of them read from academic-style papers with “finger quotes” while others spoke more serendipitously—but the exchange was still rich and informed by their scholarship and experiences as editors and/or writers of book reviews.

Mary Rockcastle defined the essay/review as part book review, part literary essay—well accepted, but hardly every taught. The essay/review, she claimed, should be strong, original, and artfully written, clearly communicating to the reader whether they should spend their time and/or money on the book or not. But, she said, the essay/review should also serve as a springboard for reflection on the personal life of the reviewer—it strives for objectivity, but is continually subjective. The essay/review sets itself apart from other reviews because of the strong personal presence felt behind them, and how they take the reader deep inside a journey of thought. The essay/review is an art form in and of itself, Rockcastle argued, and functions as a way to prompt further conversation about books from people who want to learn how to read differently.

Jocelyn Bartkevicius then addressed the role of the essay/reviewer, and “who [was] this person, anyway?” She used an anecdote of an author’s reaction to a review she had written as a catalyst for thought—who is the speaker giving the review, and how does the reviewer effect the review itself? In an effort to understand the essay/review better, Bartkevicius noted that essays (the “normal” kind), are grounded on their intimacy, their complex narration that is sometimes contradictory, and their focus on discovery, “like looking at diamond from all angles.” She noted that essays from forbearers such as Woolf and Montaigne were also essay/reviews and identified that the best essay/reviews simultaneously engaged in a three-part conversation:

1)      with the reader,

2)      with the editor or writer in consideration, and

3)      with the material that the book or books address.

Bartkevicius also addressed the negative review, and put it into conversation with positive reviews, observing that the traditional “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” approach to reviewing books does not leave enough space to put the reviewer into proper context—it is just concerned about whether or not the reader should buy the book. Rather than struggle with the issues of too little space and the expectation and pressure to be a critic, Bartkevicius argued that we should not be ignorant of history (the concerns about the shortcomings of traditional book reviews are not new) and should rescue the essay/review.

David Ingle spoke from his fifteen years of experience as an essay/review editor with Georgia Review. He noted the three different types of essay/reviews Georgia Review publishes:

  • multi-title essay/reviews (15-20 pages)
  • single-title reviews (4-5 pages)
  • book briefs (like single-title reviews—but brief!)

Ingle identified the book briefs as the most demanding to write, but not to edit. In comparing the book brief and the multi-title essay/reviews, he noted that the essay/reviews the reviewer has to write about four or five books at a time, but he wasn’t sure about the process for the writers. He just knew that he gave them choices, and in a few months, he’d get an essay/review back. Ingle noted that essay/reviews put the reviewer in conversation with both the reader and the writer. He identified the best essay/review as putting the books in conversation with one another—but recognized that this is impossible, but getting close would be nice. From an editor’s perspective, Ingle stated that he always makes sure that the essay/review “works” before they go to press. Ideally the overarching concepts should seem natural and organic rather than forced, and this, more often than not, is a result of the reviewer’s personal experience. When he reads essay/reviews, the aesthetic he is looking for is an essay/review that is equally a review as it is an essay. If it’s too much of a review—it’s just that. A book review. If it is more a personal essay—than why is it in the review section? They’re called the Georgia Review for a reason. Ingle also spoke at length about an experiment he wanted to complete that reminded me of an Oulipo challenge—where instead of giving his essay/reviewers a choice between twenty or so possible books to review, he would give the reviewer five—and only those five—books, and trust that the reviewer would find a way to make the essays interconnected. It wouldn’t necessarily need to be the “right” five books, but something in the zeitgeist that ties them all together—only the reviewer can make that connection transparent.

Stan Sanvel Rubin used his sense of humor to relay his understanding of essay/reviews from his previous experience as an essay/reviewer. He noted that many traditional book reviews are searching for one-liners—like the famous, “The trouble with the book is the covers are too far apart.” That’s not our job, Rubin said, and he dove into the process of writing the essay/review. Like an essayist—first establish context with an opening question to clarify and reveal meaning. The reviewer may have intuited what he or she wants to write about, but they may not be sure yet. Once the first draft is written, the reviewer can play with structure and balance in revision. This is where some of the deeper discovery occurs. The reviewer creates common context by thoroughly reading individual volumes. Then reviews what he or she has read, with value added. The essay/reviewer has the space for freedom and play. They have a voice, but no confession. Above all, they must have a strong sense of their audience, deadline, and clarity—which usually means heavy editing to get it just right. Balance matters—the essay/review must add up to something thoughtful and appreciative to the audience.

The Q&A was brief, but covered a few important topics, such as what to do when a review so comprehensively summarizes a book that it functions as a Cliffsnotes version of the book(s) (it’s up to you), which literary magazines publish the best essay/reviews (all of the literary magazines represented on the panel), how scholarly/academic reviews differ from essay/reviews (tone and word choice).

Leslie Salas is an Associate Course Director in the English Department at Full Sail University. She also serves as Assistant Editor for The Florida Review, Assistant Graphic Narrative Editor for Sweet: A Literary Confection, and as a nonfiction reader for Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net. Leslie writes in multiple modes—prose, screenplay, & comics—and frequently contributes to The Gloria Sirens, The Drunken Odyssey, and Leslie Learns Lines. Her work has been published in The Southeast Review, Sphere, and others.

On Turning Down Reading Invites: What’s a Writer’s Time Worth?

March 17, 2014 § 2 Comments

Lev Raphael

Lev Raphael

A guest post from Lev Raphael:

Years ago, when I was speaking on a panel at the Jewish Community Center in Pittsburgh, I met the writer Evelyn Torton Beck, who was personable, wise, and funny.  She was the first author to talk to me about accurately assessing what my time was worth when I was invited to speak out of town.

It’s not just the day you’re there, she said, if it’s only a day.  It’s the day before, getting ready, and then at least one day of re-entry into your regular schedule, sometimes more, depending on how complicated your visit was.

I’d never thought of doing a gig in those terms and it was immensely helpful.  Like the time I was invited to speak in San Francisco, and the speaker’s fee was good.  But that’s as far as it went: they weren’t even offering to cover hotel and meals, just air fare and “home hospitality.”  The latter is extremely iffy.  The one thing I crave on the road is privacy, since I’m constantly on stage.  I really wanted to do the gig, especially since I hadn’t spoken in San Francisco for a long time, but then I thought of the jet lag I’d be dealing with, and to me that doubled the time involved.  I simply wasn’t being compensated enough for how much I’d have to put into it, so I said no.

Saying no isn’t easy for writers.  I’ve had many discussions with other authors and this is a subject that comes up again and again.  Part of the problem is that when we start out, we tend to say yes to everything because we crave the exposure, and somehow feel it will magically boost our careers.  We want the attention, the recognition, the respect, and hopefully the  sales that might result.  Our hopes can create a habit of saying yes.

Luckily I have a spouse who not only chimed in on what Evelyn Beck said, but added, “Ask yourself if you think you might end up griping about having to do the gig a few weeks before you go.  Ask yourself if you think it’ll be fun or different or challenging.  Ask yourself if the money really will compensate for being ripped out of your writing schedule.”

Other writers may have different questions that help them decide what to do and where.  But these work pretty well for me, and have helped me turn down gigs that I was sure later on I would regret doing.

One more thought.  The late poet Terri Jewell and I used to talk about the writing life a lot and she taught me an elegant way of saying no to things I didn’t want to do: “Thank you for asking, but I’m booked.”  It gracefully closes the discussion and I’ve used it more than once to good effect.

Lev Raphael is the author of 24 books in many genres: memoir, mystery, literary fiction, short fiction, advice for writers, essay collections, historical fiction, horror, psychology, biography, a teachers guide, and literary criticism.  His books have been translated into a dozen languages and Deborah Dash Moore, head of Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan has hailed him as “a leading figure in American-Jewish Literature.”

 

AWP 2014: The Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family

March 13, 2014 § 2 Comments

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Linda Joy Myers  on the AWP 14 panel “Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family”:

I’m a family therapist and a memoirist, so I was looking forward to hearing writers talk about the intersection of family and memoir in the workshop “Family Trouble” moderated by Joy Castro. She is the editor of Family Trouble—The Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family. The panelists included Joy Castro, Ralph Savarese, Sue William Silverman, Faith Adiele, and Stephanie Griest. The crowd filled the room and spilled out the doorway.

Joy Castro, author of the memoir The Truth Book, introduced a topic fraught with “trouble” for memoirists. “We are on a voyage of discovery to personal truth and family as we write memoir, and may be dealing with ‘self-erasure’ due to trauma.” Memoirists struggle with what to write and whether they should give themselves permission. We break the “family rules” when we write memoir—”don’t you dare tell anyone about THAT.” We have to decide what to leave in and what to leave out to serve the story.

Ralph Savarese continued the theme about choice as he discussed how he negotiated with his autistic son what details to include and the important threads in their memoir Reasonable People.  Writing a memoir means we have to ask ourselves what right we have to material that includes intimate details in other people’s lives. How much do we weigh their privacy with our need to express ourselves? He shared his writing process with his son, whose voice became more prominent over the course of writing the book. Together, they crafted a story that belonged to both of them.

Sue William Silverman writes to understand herself, and is unwilling to hold back her hard-won truths. In her book Love Sick, she revealed details that upset her ex-husband. “I wrote the story the way she needed to.  My honesty is more important to me than my ex-husband’s anger. We write to no longer hide behind our secrets.” The issue of silence looms large in the narratives of people who are abused and traumatized. An abused child lives in a world of silence, as adults do too, until they are able to break out and speak the truth. This can become our life’s work. “Writing my life gives me power.” Her advice? No matter what family thinks or wants, “break through your barriers and write anyway.” Figure out how to handle your family later.

Faith Adiele, author of Meeting Faith, has a Nordic-American mother and a Nigerian father. She’s spent her life learning about her global family, and exploring identity and belonging. She says one of the goals of writing memoir is to “free the family of shame.” She discussed the topics of betrayal, loyalty and silence in the work of Patricia Hampl and the poetry of Sharon Olds. “Writing family members on the page requires great compassion. Each memoirist’s voice is part of a larger song and we each have to decide where our songs begin, over and over again.”

Stephanie Elizondo Griest writes to discover the bonds of family in Mexican Enough—My Life Between the Borderlines she explores belonging, identity, and how we call ourselves family. She visited Mexico to try to find her roots, and saw how quickly we disappear—“the etchings on the grave stones were worn smooth by the rain.” She spoke with passion how we must explore the questions that drive us, and write our discoveries so we articulate the voices of our ancestors and leave a legacy. “Memoir is the best way I know of perpetuating us.”

The feeling in the room was one of hunger—to understand the “rules” of memoir, and to find answers about the conflicts that haunt memoir writers about family, truth, and finding voice. The panelists fed that hunger by speaking about their struggles, demonstrating that you can write a book about family and live to tell about it.

Linda Joy Myers, president of the National Association of Memoir Writers, joins speakers for monthly teleseminars at www.namw.org to discuss tools, topics, and questions that drive memoirists crazy. She is the author of Don’t Call Me Mother—A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness, The Power of Memoir, and the Journey of Memoir. She co-teaches the program Write Your Memoir in Six Months.

AWP 2014: Comedy is Tragedy Plus Time

March 13, 2014 § 5 Comments

mr lopate

“Lefty”Lopate. Photo courtesy of Marla Sink Druzgal [TravelingMarla.com]

Alle C. Hall reports on the panel, “Lightening Up the Dark: The Role of Humor in Memoir.”

Stop whining, dang you!

Naturally, the panelist stated it more kindly and with greater eloquence, fessing up to arrogance and regret, to fear, even self-pity—so long as by the final draft, self-pity was gone, gone, gone.

Philip Lopate and Suzanne Greenberg’s craft talks opened and closed the event. Greenberg teaches CNF at Cal State Fullerton, while Lopate goes about the lucky business of being Lopate. He suggested:

  1. Say horrendous things that everyone thinks but no one says out loud.
  2. Say them blithely.
  3. At least teeter on the edge of completely unacceptable.
  4. Use slightly anachronistic language.
  5. Be exquisitely modest.
  6. Poke fun at one’s own cowardice, cruelty, and selfishness.

Susanne Greenberg described students regularly writing about personal tragedies without understanding the unremarkable nature of their tragedies. To help them “stop staring out the window in regret,” she:

  1. infuses the classroom with humor, primarily through her attitude;
  2. looks for moments of humor in an otherwise serious work; and
  3.  seeks revelation, a slashing truth in a lighter piece.

To my mind, she was speaking to the Chekhovian state of joy-filled pain, or pain-filled joy. I can’t out which was which, but do know that it doesn’t matter. The three authors that spoke between Lopate and Greenberg—Joe Mackall, Mimi Schwartz, and Daniel Stolar—understand keenly what it means to share that gift.

Joe Mackall wasted no time getting to busting guts. “Speaking after Phillip Lopate must be like what Danny DeVito feels, at a bar with Brad Pitt. They’re not there for you but there is decent overflow.”

Mackall then dove into a confession of true fear, and the separate fear of writing trite. Was he a “sentimental idiot” because:

  • he was ageing. (Riff: when incontinence finally gets too embarrassing, he plans to smoke a lot of weed.)
  • he refuses to get new carpet in the library because his granddaughters had crawled across the old.

Mimi Schwartz taught the gift by sharing it. She described a moment, when she was at an emotional nadir from loosing her breasts to cancer, that her husband went about their house, saying, “Here, titty, titty; Here, titty, titty.”

She said, “Question the premise that seriousness is more valid than honest humor. Let’s not choose. Let’s go for good writing and good reading, toward a more complex truth.” Schwartz encouraged what she called, “the anger that may start the piece” giving way to something so much more than a way to get over your tragedy. It can turn survival into thriving.

The ideal segue for Dan Stolar, who read work so personal that he remains undecided as to whether to publish it. To honor his choice, I’ll share some of his wisdom, instead.

  • “I use humor to try to break your heart, and to try to keep mine from breaking in the process.”
  • “Make the reader complicit.” He mentioned a gossip-nasty joke that came up two times. “Some of you laughed twice.”
  •  “You are not joking, even as you are trying to make someone laugh. But we are not joking.”

Note the shift in pronoun.

It was gorgeous, witnessing the writers enjoy their work with a seeming lack of self-absorption. Their work seemed at a point where they were curious about people (including themselves) as the walking diagnoses that we are. And the moments that scored the biggest laughs were those when one of them looked up from their prose with a pause, and a self-effacing chuckle.

Alle C. Hall’s blog, About Childhood: Answers for Writers, Parents, and Former Children, is accepting submissions for The Not-Nearly-Annual Frozen Fish Head Haiku Contest. Ms. Hall is a saucy lass, but serious about comic haiku.

Top 10 Reasons Why “Navigating Emptiness: Benefits and Drawbacks of Teaching the Lyric Essay” Was A Great Panel

March 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

dreamtigers_coverby Sally Ashton

10. Smart Women Panelists

The scheduled mixed-gender panel of four turned out to be three women, three very smart women well-suited to the discussion of the “lyric essay’s delight in gaps, association, and the unknown,” a panel who also presented effective teaching strategies. Panelists included moderator and editor of Rose Metal Press, Kathleen Rooney; Dr. Nicole Walker, Northern Arizona University; and Dr. Julie Paegle, Associate Professor of Poetry at California State University San Bernardino.

9. A Hot Topic

Lyric Essay. This brief form might be voted Most Popular AWP Concept 2014 if you take into account the number of panels devoted to any murky combination of short form considerations. I counted thirteen, though more might have been lurking behind cleverer titles.

8. Best Neologism to Replace Clunky “Cross-Genre-Hybrid-Form-Trans-Blended-Flash-Shorts-Lyric-Essay” Terminology

Thanks to Kathleen Rooney for introducing “Open Form Essay,” and for explaining how she arrived at a term whose definition enacts what it names. She says the term occurred to her after reading Naked Poetry, a 1969 anthology, Stephen Berg, ed.

7. Concrete Tips

See also: #2, Handouts.

6. Sample Assignments

Well-articulated assignments accompanied by either clear instructions or detailed handouts made this panel’s take-away value high. Assignments included “imitation” assignments from readings; working with the Petrarchan sonnet as an generating structure for a piece; and writing secrets, one true and one false that both appear to be true, to be redistributed and serve as a prompt for another student’s essay.

5. Cool Recommended Texts

The texts were chosen to serve in specific themed courses, but having titles listed in the syllabi helped me to better envision the connections each instructor was looking to make. Three books that I felt I would read anyway were A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon: New (Soma)Tics, by C.A. Conrad; Dreamtigers, by Borges (I’ve read only selections); and The Noisy Egg, poetry by panelist Nicole Walker. The panelists did seem to be teaching the lyric essay in a cross-genre fashion for the most part, and this was reflected in their hybrid booklists.

4. Good Hybrid Form Apologists

I guess we’re always anxious to know the why of everything and this panel revealed a number of reasons why a hybrid approach is a good strategy for teaching grad and undergrad student writers. Panelists variously claimed that this mode was useful for grads to cross-fertilize their “home” genre, that a short form can serve more concisely as a teaching model for how to understand and manipulate a text, that the open form lends itself to manageable self-reflection, and that in certain student populations it can be empowering for students to realize they can use literary strategies to process trauma.

3. A Well-organized Presentation

At 9am on an AWP-Friday morning, clear and useful presentations full of ideas and hewing to time limitations that also allow ample time for Q&A makes you glad you answered the alarm instead of sleeping through it. Like you wanted to. They were a fast-paced, smart, and superbly prepared panel.

2. Helpful Handouts

You might feel like a shopper at a sale table when an AWP panel offers a handout. Mine! These Navigators offered three. I especially appreciated that at least one panelist brought an assistant to insure the sheets were evenly distributed and that there were enough handouts for the entire group. Except for the last handout that proved to be one short. Mine. However, these panelists offered to email material to those who missed (tip to future panelists: we are writers, after all. We will read and likely hoard the stuff). Handouts include complete course syllabi as well as lists of course texts and a couple of assignments.

And the TOP reason “Navigating Emptiness: Benefits and Drawbacks of Teaching the Lyric Essay” was so good:

1. Smart Women Panelists Who Said the Following Memorable Near-quotes

Nicole, in regards to instructing students, stressed that they need to “ground floating thoughts . . . Thoughts need an audience. (I tell them) your thoughts need to be seen as a character. Put yourself in a character on the page.” Kathleen, defending her term “Open Form Essay,” stressed the need to avoid designation that over-determines the writing before it’s written, but instead to “allow form to develop organically. To let content shape the piece.” Julie, in discussing the tension inherent in lyric’s epiphanic transport and narrative’s movement through time, said that the lyric essay can be thought of as “a time machine that renegotiates suspended time.” Besides being intelligent writers, they were friendly, engaged, and generous. Thank you, all.

Sally Ashton is Editor-in-Chief of DMQ Review (www.dmqreview.com), an online journal featuring poetry and art. She is the author of three poetry books, and she has just completed Behaviour of Clocks, a hybrid collection. Ashton teaches at San Jose State University and in Disquiet International Literary Program, Lisbon. http://disquietinternational.org/

Finding a Market for Your Flash Nonfiction

March 11, 2014 § 6 Comments

flashChelsea Biondolillo shares advice from the AWP 2014 panel, “Getting Short-Form Nonfiction to Readers: A Publication Discussion.” 

The number of journals, both online and in print, that are willing to consider flash nonfiction grows each year. Some of these venues have strict format, word count, or topic guidelines, while others are willing to consider a wide variety of prose configurations.

What follows are some notes on methods and strategies that have informed my own research into finding markets for my own flash nonfiction.

  • Ask around. For two years in a row, I scoured the book fair at AWP for journals willing to consider short, truthy prose. If an editor or representative of a journal said they’d be willing to consider something under 1,000 words, I asked if they had any examples in print—and when they did, I bought them.
  • Use the Google-force. If you don’t have the luxury of getting to AWP, or can’t bear to wait for next year, you can search free resources such as Poets & Writers and search engines. If I can’t find “flash nonfiction,” I look for the magic words, “short prose.” Failing that, I search for a combination of “prose poetry,” “hybrid or experiemental,” and “narrative or lyric nonfiction”—if a journal is willing to consider all three of those categories, they will likely consider flash nonfiction.
  • Practice the form in your cover letter. My cover letter is almost always an exercise in brevity. This is not advice specific to short form publication, but can be used for any and all journal submissions when you don’t already have a personal relationship with the editor. Whatever you do, don’t write a letter that is longer than your submission.

SAMPLE COVER LETTER:

Dear Ms. Brown / nonfiction editor,

Thank you for considering the attached flash prose, “My Tiniest Essay,” for publication in The Pushcart Machine Review. The word count is approximately 250, and this is a simultaneous submission.

Best,

Chelsea Biondolillo

 Author bio:

Be brief, professional, and use the third person. Italicize journal names if the format will allow it.

Click here for a list of Flash Nonfiction Markets assembled by Chelsea Biondolillo 

AWP 2014: Truth & First Person Journalism

March 10, 2014 § 5 Comments

1901147_10152629853947656_1697701726_nGuest blogger Samantha Claire Updegrave responds to the AWP Seattle panel, “First Person Journalism: Tips for Telling the Truth”:

I’m in an end-of-AWP-day-one cranky stupor when journalist, author, and magazine editor Autumn Stephens’ humor lifts me up. I shift my sore hips back into the chain-locked chair, lean forward, and soak up her soft-spoken words. 

“Americans tell 1.6 lies a day,” she tells us, citing a 2010 study. She leans into the microphone and tosses out a few examples.

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

We have an open marriage.

There are weapons of mass destruction.”

I’m pretty honest, but it makes me think. I tell that first lie to my four-year-old who demands the book Santa’s Toy Shop at bedtime at least four times a week. He says he’s going to be extra good this year so that Santa will stop at his house with a model train and tunnel. It’s only March, and if he wants to self-govern based on that, fine with me. In early adulthood I once fell for something along the lines of the second. Big mistake. And the third, we’re still feeling the reverberations of that lie the world over.

Stephens throws out a different example, one from her early magazine days. She was asked to write about interior design, which she knew nothing about, and took a personal approach, letting the story speak through her experience as a novice. She began with something along the lines of, “As I walked through the gates I was transported to the South Seas….” Her editor returned the piece with the “I’s” crossed out and replaced by, “a visitor.” It reminded her of something her mother had told her years before. “She said I could expect a monthly visitor.” When she saw the changes in the article, she had the same thought as after her mother’s warning. “What visitor?”

Old-time journalist will tell you that they learned to never use the vertical pronoun, that slender sneaky little “I.” But these days, when it’s not strict reportage, there’s a more nuanced view of the “I.”

Using the first person, coming out and saying who we are, is one way we can infuse our non-fiction writing with integrity. There’s no need for the visitor artifice. First person is a gateway into a story because it invites the reader in, illuminates the universal through our experiences. It’s not for every piece, but let’s look at those beginning lies as a case study.

If I were writing about how family beliefs get passed down, I could start with the Santa experiences with my son. I could ask my Jewish friends from childhood, whom I later learned helped their parents carry their presents from the basement closet to their tree, why they never told me the truth. Maybe I’d find a bigger story about belief and belonging.

If I wanted to explore the virtue of faithfulness, I could enter the story through my experience of what was supposed to be a one-night stand in my early 20’s with a man who claimed his marriage had ended. He lied, then his wife left and he became my problem. This approach could let readers look at their feelings without making them directly confront their own transgressions, whether real or fantasy.

If I wanted to write about how the things got worse for girls in Afghanistan with the US military presence, I wouldn’t need to be in it. But, if I was writing about the recall of inactive troops, I’d share my story of the letter I received on September 21, 2011 notifying me that my permanent separation from the US Air Force, which was slated for December 5th, was on hold, indefinitely.

It boils down to trusting our intuition with our writing, to asking if our experiences or interactions with the subject matter lead us to the truth, a “go big” where our presence brings the reader in and illuminates the story, world, or some aspect of our shared humanity.

Stephens asserts that whatever we write, with the exception of our grocery list, that we should, “Write with integrity, and for God’s sake don’t be boring.”

Samantha Claire Updegrave writes creative non-fiction, micro-essays, and poetry. Her work has appeared most recently in Literary Mama, Bacopa Literary Review, and hipMama. She is an MFA candidate at The Northwest Institute of Literary Arts and an assistant non-fiction editor at Soundings Review. By day she is an urban planner, and lives in Seattle, Washington, with her partner, young son, and two feuding cats.

AWP 2014: Losing Sleep Over Social Media

March 10, 2014 § 6 Comments

cross-platform-marketingStephanie Bane sets the record straight on platform building:

“With great opportunity comes great responsibility.”  Jon Fine, director of author and publisher relations at Amazon, invoked two great teachers – Jesus, and Peter Parker’s uncle –  when he exhorted us to develop our own social media platform to better market our books.

The panel, titled “How to Do It Now: New Trends in Literary Publishing,” slid sideways, from what I assumed would be the topic of new digital publishing platforms, to the topic of digital marketing.   This is a topic I know something about.  I support my writing habit – my graduate degree and this trip to Seattle – through my work at an advertising agency, where roughly 70% of our revenue comes from digital marketing. We build social media platforms for national brands, so I have a clear understanding of how much time, strategic thinking, and revenue, goes into constructing a Facebook (or Twitter, or Pinterest) presence that will actually sell something: A lot.  A midsize client with a marketing budget of $10MM will spend roughly $4.1MM in digital media, which includes social media.  Social media represents $400K of the budget, and this dollar amount covers the salaries of one or two full-time employees who generate and post content, and the ad spend that drives people to the Facebook page.

This was the professional context I brought to a panel in which a room full of authors were lectured on the importance of social media to their careers.  This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this particular talk.  It is in fact an echo of what many writers hear from their agents and publishers: Start a blog.  Get at least 800 followers on Twitter.  Get at least 1000 Facebook friends, or fans of your author page.

Agents and publishers who are pressuring writers to do this don’t know the return on investment for these efforts.  This isn’t an indictment of the publishing industry –measuring the return-on-investment on social media is complicated, and involves expensive research.  Even brands with big, $10MM budgets will forego the cost, accepting as truth that even if they don’t know exactly how much in sales social media can account for, they’d be selling less product without it.

In the absence of social media return-on-investment data for the average author, let’s use some old-school direct marketing numbers as a proxy.  As a rule of thumb, a 1% response rate on direct marketing efforts is a good one.  Say you have the magic number of one thousand Facebook friends, or fans of your author page.  If you reach every single one of them at least three times with an announcement of your book release and a link to Amazon, you should expect ten of them to buy your book.  That’s right – ten. Let’s make that number a little – or even a lot – higher, because after all these people have some personal connection to you and are more likely to buy.  Say you get an extraordinary buy rate of 20%.  That’s 200 books.

Take a moment to imagine how much money that puts in your pocket.  It’s not nothing.  Now – take another moment calculating how much time you spent developing your online community, creating content to share with your friends, marketing your personal brand on your blog and in places like Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and Pinterest.  As panelist Rachel Fershleiser, a successful writer, editor, and digital media expert who works for Tumblr, said – in the most honest and gratifying moment of the talk – if you actually do all of this, “you will never sleep again.”

Every author should establish a social media platform. I’d never argue against it, given what I do for a living.  But there is only one reason for an author to lose sleep over social media: advertising dollars. If you or your publisher is paying hard cash for advertising that drives people to your blog or your author page on Facebook, go all out.  There will be an incremental pay-off. But if this does not apply — scale your effort to the reward.  Writing for social media should never take time away from something you’d rather be writing instead.

Stephanie Bane works at a Pittsburgh ad agency with a particular expertise in digital and social media.

AWP 2014 :The I or the Eye

March 10, 2014 § 3 Comments

eye-black-white-ppt-backgrounds-powerpointGuest blogger Nora Maynard reviews the panel, “The I or the Eye: The Narrator’s Role in Nonfiction”

 “You think you’re yourself, but there are other persons in you.”

-John Barth, “Lost in the Funhouse”

Blogging about an AWP panel on how to craft an appropriate nonfiction narrator feels a little like stepping into a funhouse hall of mirrors.

Writing this post, I find myself becoming more self-conscious than usual about what all nonfiction writers have no choice but to do: put together narrators that are, while at the same time aren’t quite, true versions of ourselves.

As I type this, I feel hyper-aware of myself writing in a voice. (But which one, which me this time? The earnest, Latinate word-using one from university? The cheerful, forthright, service journalist one? The just-the-facts-ma’am, board meeting minutes-taking one? The introspective, image-filled, personal essay-writing one?)

And as I review all that took place in that conference room in Washington State Convention Center the last week, I also find myself thinking about the distinctive voices of the panel’s four presenters: Michael Steinberg, Lia Purpura, Phillip Lopate, and Robert Root, all extraordinarily accomplished, yet contrastingly different, nonfictionists, each using a unique voice to describe his or her own distinctive approach to, yes, nonfiction narrative voice.

It’s all kind of dizzying.

But now it’s time for this “I” to step aside and become an “eye.” Here’s a little sampling of what each panelist said:

1. Michael Steinberg: Where to sit? Center stage–or off?

Moderator Michael Steinberg explained that Elyssa East, who played a key role in the planning and development of the panel, recently had a baby and wasn’t able to attend the conference. Steinberg talked about East’s book Dogtown, which is largely a work of investigative journalism, but includes a very personal section about what drew her to her subject in the first place. Steinberg said the book got him thinking about why some narrators are situated center stage, while others sit in the periphery, offstage. How do we, as writers, choose?

Steinberg offered this quotation from David Shields: “Find the form that releases your best intelligence. Find what you do exquisitely well and play it to the hilt.”

2. Lia Purpura: Step away from the self

Lia Purpura pointed out some of the pitfalls of being overly self-conscious as a writer. She acknowledged that “a strong voice is a powerful idea-delivery system,” but warned that “talking about voice an awful lot as a creator, and too early on in the process may put pressure on the writer to compose in a certain way, that is, to be led by attitude, to foreground a personality–at the expense of recognizing other generative gestures.”

She suggested that a writer might do best to stay alert and open to the new, the unexpected, and the mysterious during the process of writing, rather than adhering to a pre-determined voice. But she also acknowledged the paradox of any attempt to truly sidestep one’s own self: “I move through everything I write as, well, me.”

3. Phillip Lopate: Focus on your contradictions and conflicts

Phillip Lopate traced the roots of his own interest in narrator as character back to an early love of Dostoevsky. He recalled how much he enjoyed the voice of the ranting, first-person narrator of Notes from Underground, quoting the novel’s opening lines: “I am a sick man….I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man. I think there is something wrong with my liver.”

He also cited the cheekily provocative tone used by the philosopher Nietzsche, as well as Browning’s self-revealing, unreliable narrator in the poem “My Last Duchess” as other early influences. He advised writers to focus on their own internal contradictions and conflicts as a way of building narrative tension and interest. He encouraged us all to embrace what Frank O’Hara once called “the catastrophe of one’s personality.”

4. Robert Root: Approximate your authentic self

Robert Root listed some of the many hats he’s worn as a writer: “rhetorical-slash-literary academic, a composition-slash-creative nonfiction teacher, a radio commentator, an en plein air essayist, a memoirist,” and described some of the problems of hopping from genre to genre. He recalled how he was once taken to task by an editor for including a joke in an academic article, then later criticized by a book reviewer for being too academic when he used the word “persona” in a book he wrote about E. B. White. Root spoke about the importance of, as writer of creative nonfiction, transcending the conventions and expectations of genre and remaining true to one’s own authentic self.

He wrapped up the afternoon’s discussion with these final words:

“In creative nonfiction, we not only have the freedom but also the necessity of being narrative and expository or experiential and reflective in the same work, to simultaneously be both the I and the Eye in the same essay, even in the same paragraph. For me, that involves listening to myself and being alert for signs of a split personality, making sure I am the first person who is speaking, keeping myself—even when I’m offstage—the matter of my book.”

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Nora Maynard‘s work has appeared in Salon, Drunken Boat, the Ploughshares blog, and The Millions, among others. She recently finished her ninth marathon and first novel. Visit her website at http://www.noramaynard.com/.

AWP 2014: The Intersection of Art, Advocacy, and Ethics in Writing About Your Kids

March 9, 2014 § 2 Comments

awp manAn AWP panel report from Hafidha Acuay:

Zoe Zolbrod introduced the panel that included herself and four other memoirists (Jillian Lauren, Ben Tanzer, Claire Dederer, Kerry Cohen) who have written about their children. Zolbrod spoke of balancing the writer’s necessity of following a story no matter where it may lead, with responsibilities to our children. She suggested several tactics: setting up rules, taking personal responsibility for what we write, and understanding that there will be consequences for people in (and outside of) our lives.

The usefulness of self-defined boundaries was summed up by Claire Dederer, who said that grappling with undefined parameters will slow you down; creating rules that reflect your values and comfort level will give you “the freedom to write.” And then – write. “There’s always revision.”

Ben Tanzer stated that writing about his family is a selfish act. He’s had to consider, “What does it mean to be the most selfish person in the house?”  One way he addresses this is to be intentional about why he’s telling a story – is he sharing the shit just to share the shit?  “You have to ask, ‘What’s the point?’” Answering his own question, Tanzer said, “I want to write a love letter.”

Early in the session, Tanzer demonstrated this when he talked about how his first son, at 23 days old, began crying for 15-20 hours a day. This went on for nine weeks. He described in blunt terms the nightmarish situation he and his wife were in: sleep-deprived, terrified that one of their apartment building neighbors would call the police, and at each other’s throats. His thoughts were violent and despairing. And then their shut-in neighbor left a bag at their door. The bag contained a teddy bear, a container of soup, and a note addressed to their infant son that read, “I’ve heard you’re having a hard time, but it will get better.”

Telling the story in this way makes both parts of it meaningful. It’s not just a guy talking about how much he hated his family for a few months; and it’s not just a sympathetic neighbor. It’s the agony of parenting – and then the solace.

Many of the panelists said though people focus on their children, these stories are chronicles of their parenting experience. Kerry Cohen said of her memoir on raising her autistic son, “The book isn’t really about Ezra; it was really about me.”

Jillian Lauren commented that people who say things like, “Children should have no digital presence!” probably don’t feel called to write about their children; but some writers do feel called to write about their children. As advocates, or to connect and learn with other parents, or even – as Dederer emphasized midway through the session – to create an incredible work of art. (Dederer noted that women are often expected to put aside their works of creation out of concern for others’ feelings.)

Questions from the audience centered on what will the PTA moms, neighbors, or grandparents think, and will the children suffer? Kerry Cohen quoted Joan Didion: “I’m not afraid to be hated. I’m not afraid to be loved.”  Cohen also said she didn’t have rules about what she will or won’t write in a memoir. “I write about the things I wished I’d had to read [when I was going through these things].”

Jillian Lauren said it’s a gift to have ones dirty laundry aired … “My parents’ generation lived with secrets, secrets, secrets – and I don’t think it served them.”

The panel agreed that despite all the judgments from strangers, and anxiety about what everyone will think, it’s probably going to be all right.  You can never tell what someone’s response will be to your work, and you probably can’t help but write it anyway.

Dederer said there are two ways to offset the selfishness of a memoir, “The first is to make it really, really good; and the second is to be really honest.”

Hafidha Acuay is a Seattle-based poet and non-fiction writer.

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