Authors: Can You Answer These Questions—Quickly?

November 4, 2022 § 9 Comments

By Sue Fagalde Lick 

What kind of books do you write? What is this book about? 

Sitting at my table at a recent book festival, I heard the same questions over and over. The authors who sold a lot of books were ready with their answers. 

I can’t count the number of times Mike Nettleton [deadlyduomysteries.com] at the next table said he writes “humorous murder mysteries” and then described a book in which a professional wrestler turned private detective runs into Sasquatch in the woods while on a case. His spiel was clear, quick, and interesting. If the potential reader wanted to know more, he would go on, but often this was enough. 

He and his wife Carolyn J. Rose, who writes mysteries with a substitute-teacher protagonist, had an attractive display, friendly smiles, and books of a sort that people want to read, and they knew their lines. I couldn’t resist. 

During my break, I strolled around seeing what other authors had to sell. I bought some books, but not from any of the writers who hemmed and hawed or who pummeled me with blow-by-blow descriptions of books I didn’t want in the first place. I had 50 booths to visit, and my break was short. 

I avoided the writers who called out, “Hey! What do you like to read?” Don’t put me on the spot like that. I bypassed children’s books, religious books, how-to-feel-good books, or anything that looked like I would never actually get around to reading it. I just wanted a good story. All I wanted to know was what kind of book are you selling and what is this book about? If I was not interested in what they were selling, nothing they could say would change my mind.

One author said her books are like Clan of the Cave Bear but rated PG. Another said he writes “biker poetry.” Another offered “inspirational nature photo books”. I didn’t buy any of those, but I appreciated their sales skills. 

Remember: so many books, so little time, and only so much money to spend. 

Back at my table, I noticed a pattern. People were attracted by the cover of one of my novels, flipped the book over to read what it was about, then glanced at the rest of my books and asked what they were about. Time for me to say my lines. I was prepared.

You have probably heard about the “elevator pitch,” a quick summary of your book that you could spout if you ran into an agent or editor in the elevator during a conference. That doesn’t happen very often, but you do find yourself meeting all kinds of people at meals, in the hallway, or even in the restroom. When they ask, “What do you write?” are you ready with an answer? Don’t start with, “I don’t know how to classify it, but, well, there was this girl and she . . . and then she . . .” By then, they’re checking their email or looking for a way to escape.

No. Humorous murder mystery. Professional wrestler turned private detective meets Sasquatch in the woods. 

Even if you never sell your books at a festival or meet an editor at a conference, you need this information. Before publication, it’s your pitch. After you sign the contract, it goes on your book cover, website, and Instagram posts. You’ll need it when you’re trying to schedule readings, when your mom wants to brag about you, and when they introduce you for your Pulitzer Prize. 

Coming up with these two pieces of verbiage can be more torturous than writing a whole 300-page book, but it’s worth the effort. 

What kind of things do you write? Boil it down to 3-5 words. Walk around a bookstore to see where your books would fit. Hike a nature trail and brainstorm until you find the one that works. 

What is this book about? Two sentences. Do not start with, “Well …” Don’t give us every little plot point and describe every character. What is the big story you’re trying to tell? How would a reviewer describe your book in a few words? 

For example: 

Glynnis MacNicol’s memoir No One Tells You This is about a New York journalist who is single and childless on her 40th birthday. She spends the next year considering what her life will be like if she remains alone. 

In My Two Elaines, Martin J. Schreiber, a former governor of Wisconsin, offers a no-nonsense account of his caregiving journey with his two Elaines, the Elaine before Alzheimer’s and the Elaine after. Chapters tell of their lives together and how they changed and what he advises others taking care of loved ones with dementia to do.

My own novel Up Beaver Creek is about a young widow who heads west from Montana seeking a new life as a musician. She settles on the Oregon Coast where things are going well—until the tsunami hits.

Take the time to find the right words. Polish them, memorize them, and say them with pride.

Even if you’re not writing books at this point, if you’re submitting essays and articles, you still need to answer these questions in your cover letters and query letters and after you publish. What do you write? What is this piece about? Take the time to figure it out. 

Then get back to reading about the detective and Sasquatch.
___

Sue Fagalde Lick writes memoirs, fiction, and poetry about strong women living nontraditional lives. Her books include Stories Grandma Never Told, Childless by Marriage, and the forthcoming Alzheimered: A Memoir of Mutts, Music, and Madness. She lives on the Oregon coast with her dog Annie. More information: https://www.suelick.com.

Why I Write

October 31, 2022 § 12 Comments

By Diane Forman

One of my favorite prompts, which I give my students near the end of a six or eight-week writing workshop, is a section of Terry Tempest Williams’ beautiful essay entitled “Why I Write.” I love Williams’ words: “I write to discover…to honor beauty…I write myself out of my nightmares and into my dreams.” My writing group participants disclose similar revelations: they write to remember, to calm themselves, to put into words what they can’t say aloud.

As a lifelong journaler—I write daily in an online journal, but also have 20 hard-bound diaries comprised of my youthful longing and musings, sealed in a box with a warning note to my kids about its contents—I know the power of writing to truth, writing to honesty. Plus I just love words. 

When I was older, I began participating in writing workshops. Having thoughts that were previously hidden in a journal witnessed in a group is incredibly powerful. It’s one of the reasons I teach. But a writing group is usually small. And safe.

The reasons I write didn’t change dramatically once I began publishing my work for a larger audience. I still wrote to make peace with things I couldn’t control, to find answers to broader questions. Telling my stories has helped me make sense of my experiences, but I discovered that they often helped my readers make sense of theirs. Although writing is primarily a solitary pursuit, publishing has invited connection with other people. 

Amazing things have happened since I began publishing creative nonfiction and personal essays. I wrote a story about finding my mother’s childhood home near Berlin, the one that my grandparents hurriedly and secretly sold to a kind British woman and her husband, before being forced to flee in 1939. This couple’s sons, who now live in England and Ireland, read my piece and learned that the house had been destroyed, then contacted me. That home in Berlin had been especially meaningful and significant to my family, as well as to theirs. Connection.

I wrote about my internal questions (i.e., what would my grandparents think?) and the complicated process of obtaining German citizenship. Subsequently, several people contacted me about their own German relatives who’d had citizenship revoked during the war. Recently, I spent an hour on Zoom with a woman who read my piece and had processed similar haunting questions before applying for German citizenship. She described an intense emotional reaction when handed her naturalization certificate at the German consulate in Boston. I remember also tearing up when standing in exactly the same spot. Connection.

Because of these essays, I have met and been invited into groups of other “2Gs” (children of survivors, second generation after the Holocaust). We share a deep understanding of ancestral trauma because we’ve all lived it. Before I began publishing stories about my German relatives and our family history, I had neither heard of nor known any other 2Gs. These associations are important to me.

I’ve written about other difficult topics too, such as anxiety and disordered eating, child estrangement, hoarding and aging (oh, and some lighter pieces too—it’s not all doom and gloom!). Not all responses to my pieces have been positive; sometimes family members or readers have delivered criticism, forcing me to question my tolerance for personal exposure. Yet even when someone doesn’t like what I say, my words have opened communication, which encourages connection. Some messages from readers, both positive and negative, have led to longer email exchanges or phone calls. Some strangers have become friends. These relationships are important, both as a writer and as a human.

So, while I still write for understanding, for truth, for clarification, to tell a story, to help people, to help myself and even for fun—I also write for communication, for discussion, for connection. In a world that can feel fragmented and lonely, I write to bring myself closer to others.

___

Diane Forman has published in AARP The Ethel, Boston Globe Connections, HuffPost, WBUR Cognoscenti, Brevity Blog and elsewhere. She was a 2022 finalist for the Diana Woods Memorial Award in Creative Nonfiction. Diane lives, writes, and teaches north of Boston. See more at her website or on Twitter

Anatomy of a Reader 

September 28, 2022 § 29 Comments

By Amanda Le Rougetel

To write is one thing, to be read — deeply read, seen on the page for the writer we can be — is another. 

Words on a page amount to something or nothing, until someone other than the writer reads them, and then those words amount to a whole new world. A world of response. A world in which the words give shape to life beyond the writer’s hopes and dreams and take hold as the reader’s. 

The ultimate reader is one who, like you, reads the piece in published form. But before then, the wise and the brave writer asks for feedback on the early, pre-published drafts. If it takes courage to write, it surely takes courage to ask for feedback and then more courage to receive it: Courage and calm and confidence. Not always present in good measure, but even a scrap of each will do to get the process going. 

To be a reader of a writer’s early draft is no less daunting, for it is to be both honoured and burdened: honoured to be asked for comment and burdened to do so, and not everyone is up to the task. 

I categorize draft readers into three groups: the surfer, the pedantic, and the bold. 

The surfers are willing to read, though are most comfortable on the surface of your words; they lack the interest in or capacity for substantive response: “Oh, it’s good,” they might say. “I like it. The dog is funny.” How disappointing when your reader doesn’t match the courage it took for you to ask them to be your reader. The surfers’ feedback — well meaning but in its vagueness void of value — is, if not irrelevant, then dissatisfying and especially so at the early stages of testing out a new piece of writing. In those early stages, writers need bold comment and naked assessment. 

Perhaps, of course, I asked the wrong person. 

Next up, the pedantics. These are eager readers, pencil in hand, happy, so happy, to slice and dice your words. In short, they copyedit, even proofread, well before those important tasks are needed — or wanted. Your work comes back to you with changes marked, tracked, and shouting off the page: “Typo on page four.” “Break up the description of the neglected garden; it’s too much as one chunk.” “Fix the comma splice in line 3.” These comments — commands, really — are well meant but as disappointing as the surfers’. They come too soon: the trees in sharp relief while the beauty — or potential beauty — of the forest is unseen and unremarked. 

Perhaps, of course, I asked the wrong person. 

Finally, the bold. Now, these are the treasures among a writer’s early readers, for the bold understand that feedback on a draft is more than mere opinion and is less, indeed quite different, than detailed editing. It is a commitment to be clear, honest, and constructive in response to what is (or is not yet) on the page. Such a reading requires time and skill, and respect for the writer as someone whose work deserves substantive assessment by a discerning — a bold — reader. Music to the writer’s ear is feedback something like this: “The idea is sound, but you have not written the story you are hinting at. You have sidestepped it with the frippery of the dog’s behaviour, which is amusing but not needed as foreground here. What I want more of is the woman’s childhood and her obsession with the house on the corner. Tell me who lives there and why is the garden so neglected?” 

Perhaps, finally, I asked the right person. 

The feedback from a bold reader gives us substance to work with and to build on. It proves to us that we are creating something of value with our writing, something worth reading and responding to, and, therefore, something worth continuing to work on. Alternatively, of course, it might be something to ditch, to move on from. Having even only one such reader in our circle makes a writer fortunate indeed. 

The lesson? Know the anatomy of your draft readers and choose them wisely. Keep the surfers and pedantics in your circle, for they each have their place later in the writing process. And nurture the bold readers in your midst, for they are few and far between. Be brave enough to ask for their feedback, courageous enough to receive it, and smart enough to heed it. As Ursula K. Le Guin says in Steering the Craft (2015), her gem of a book on the craft of writing: The critique is a response to your work, to your writing. It is not personal. Learn from it. However, you are the final arbiter. The discipline of art is freedom. 

So, at the end of the day, to write is to be free to work with words as we see fit — to choose them and shape them; to work alone when necessary and, equally, to connect with others when needed: Wise is the writer who asks for comment and feedback and input along the way. And fortunate is the writer who has even one reader in their circle willing to be bold and in so being to invest in us their time, their insight, their skill. And when we find you, dear bold reader, beware, for we shall never let you go. 

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Amanda Le Rougetel lives in the heart of the Canadian prairies in Winnipeg, Manitoba. A retired college instructor, she blogs at Five Years a Writer and teaches writing workshops through Writing as Tool.

Simmering My Story

September 23, 2022 § 24 Comments

By Morgan Baker

When my husband wanted to breed our second Portuguese Water Dog, Spray, I hedged. I didn’t think this was the greatest idea. Research told me that Spray could develop pyometra, a potentially life threatening infection, or ovarian cancer. Puppies could get stuck on their way out, and some puppies just don’t make it after birth. This all terrified me. I showed Matt all the literature on the dangers of breeding. He stood his ground. This would be a great family adventure. 

Ellie, my younger daughter, didn’t agree with him either. We had added her to our family to help Ellie with her anxiety when she was 13. Spray was her dog. 

I also didn’t want to be a “backyard breeder.” If we were going to do this, I wanted to be a responsible breeder. The couple from whom we got Spray thought we were great candidates for breeders. They sold Spray to us on an unlimited contract, which meant we could breed her and register the puppies as purebred Portuguese Water Dogs. Most contracts restrict new owners from breeding and require them to neuter their puppies. 

After much discussion, we went forward with the breeding. Spray was gentle and laid back, the sweetest Portuguese Water Dog we’d ever known and if she could bring more sweet pups into the world, we would make a lot of families happy. Not only did the Nightingales, our breeders, guide us through all the tests Spray had to undergo to make sure she was genetically fit to have puppies, they gave us their whelping box and all their blankets and fleecing pads. After more than seven litters, they were ready to pass on their wisdom and accoutrements.

I took notes and started a blog about the breeding and whelping, which coincided with Maggie’s last year of high school and her departure to college. At the end of the whole shebang, Matt suggested I write a book about the adventure. 

I did.

It took years during which I taught, freelanced and drove Ellie’s carpool. I submitted queries to agents and pitched it to small publishers at the AWP Annual Conference, but it didn’t go anywhere. I was tired, frustrated, and disappointed. Then my husband and I moved to Hawaii, the perfect time to put the memoir in a drawer while I started writing about my next adventure. But the puppy story stayed with me.

We returned from Hawaii shortly before the pandemic. I participated in a virtual writing retreat and pulled the puppy book out of the drawer. I started futzing with it. 

I called my writing friend, Becca, who had edited the memoir at one point. “I just realized, it’s not about the dogs, it’s about Maggie,” I said. 

Her response: “I told you that three years ago.”

Oops.

The memoir was about saying goodbye to Maggie, my older daughter. I had avoided writing about the depression that had tripped me up, then grabbed me and held me prisoner. It was scary and embarrassing to revisit, but I knew that was the direction I had to go.

I continued to take classes and workshops. I wrote a stronger query letter, I rewrote the beginning and restructured the whole memoir. I was patient with myself and the story, especially the hard parts.

Some writers can crank out a book every year. Not me. But I never gave up. This was a story I needed to write and wanted to share. 

I learned to be flexible, to listen to how readers interpreted my story. The editor who read the very first draft, which was horrible, said the story was about my marriage. While she had a point, that wasn’t why I was writing. I wanted to write about the adventure my family went on, how I eventually got on board. I wanted to explore the conflict between how great the puppies were and how depressed I was over my daughter’s departure. I wanted to show how I made it through and how I dealt with subsequent good-byes.

Now with a restructuring, some serious rewrites, a new beginning, and more false starts with agents and small publishers, my memoir has been picked up by a small indie press. It’s a heady feeling. The new publisher thought writing about mental health was important and that my story would resonate with other moms sending their teenagers out into the world. 

I am proud of myself for writing the thing that scared me the most, and I’m proud of myself for never giving up. Sometimes things take a while to cook. Sometimes simmering is better than boiling. 

Maggie is now 30 years old and married. I am older too. The college days are long gone. But when I revisit the moment when we said good-bye in front of her new dorm and walked away from each other, my stomach lurches and all the good-byes I’ve had to say in my life come back and rock my soul. 

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Morgan Baker’s work can be found in The Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Cognoscenti, Motherwell, Under the Gum Tree, Expression, The Brevity Blog, and The Bark, among other publications. She teaches at Emerson College and privately online. She was the managing editor for Thebucket.com. She is excited that her debut memoir will be out in Spring 2023 from Ten16 Press. She lives with her husband and two dogs in Cambridge, MA. For more information on workshops visit Morgan at bymorganbaker.com.

American Idol as a Metaphor for the Writer’s Pursuit

September 22, 2022 § 11 Comments

By Evyenia Downey

Contestant number eighty-two thousand three hundred and the-market-is-already-oversaturated-with-women-writing-about-their-brains-and-boyfriends, step right up! Stand at the X on the floor — a coincidental representation of all your denied submissions. Make eye contact with the judges, but not long enough to expose the tears welling under the glue-on lashes you didn’t know how to put on but figured if you can inflate a CV you can fake an extended lash. 

Get that voice ready to prove you have what it takes to win. 

I feel like a contestant on American Idol every time I submit a poem or essay for publication. Before I click submit, I stop and ask myself, am I the William Hung to their inbox? She bangs, she bangs, she bangs her head into the keyboard. I try to believe the rejection is worth it. Airtime. Getting my face out there. But like those contestants we laugh about all these years later, am I better off just staying home?

Sure, the 2022 season of American Idol I watched while yet again procrastinating my mental health recovery memoir was a lot kinder than previous years. No insults. No ridicule. Yet there is always someone who stepped up to the judges with the belief they are destined to be a star. They have dedicated years of their life to the pursuit of musical superstardom. They have sacrificed financial stability, a career in a sustainable industry, and have driven their family members to such intolerance that the contestant has arrived at their audition alone.

I’m not that far gone in my pursuit of literary stardom. I have a job in a casino that pays the bills. My husband listens with interest when I tell him about my dreams of being a professional writer and writing teacher. Maybe I’m not currently a gag reel-worthy contestant. Maybe I’m just not there yet. Or maybe I am already there and haven’t realized it yet. I think that’s what pushes me to procrastinate. The fear that I’m no good and don’t know it. The fear that I think I’m good and someone somewhere laughs at their screen upon opening my submission. 

My dream of being a writer and writing teacher developed in my twenties when I was too mentally ill to maintain a full-time job. My undergraduate GPA with the University of Toronto stands at a 2.3 because in 2010, during my third year of university, I experienced my first serious mental health decline. I barely made in out with my life, let alone a degree.

By some blessing by the literary gods, I was accepted into an MFA program in 2017. The only reason I was even considered for the MFA was the creative writing certificate program I completed with U of T in 2016. After two poetry acceptances to online magazines, a toxic romantic relationship triggered another mental health decline and I stopped writing. But the dream of the writer’s life remained. I wanted to live just like my teachers. They wrote books and articles. They taught classes. They were not bound by a concrete schedule — the ultimate appeal to my mentally ill self.

Since 2021 I’ve considered myself recovered from borderline personality disorder (BPD). After a decade of bouncing between unemployment and part-time retail work, I started my full-time job in the casino. To my surprise, I was able to work forty hours a week without experiencing another mental decline. I spent the rest of the year intentionally not writing to figure out if my interest in the written word was genuine or if it was born from 9-5 anxiety.

I was sure I would experience a dwindling interest in writing.

I was wrong. 

So here I am in 2022, mostly recovered from my mental illnesses (the BPD is gone but my OCD is an ongoing issue) and ready to build a career as a writer. I’ve only felt like an American Idol contestant for a few months. Not long enough to be discouraged, but long enough to receive enough rejections to feel tempted to quit. 

I’ve heard motivational speakers say, “You’ve only failed once you quit.” Therefore, keep going because you never know what will happen. Harry Potter was rejected by twelve publishers. Stranger Things was rejected by twelve studios. Lisa Kudrow was fired from Frasier, which led to her casting in Friends. Rejection doesn’t mean you’ve reached the end of your road. But is there a point where you have to accept that something just isn’t meant for you? 

How many seasons of American Idol do you audition for before you accept that you are not the next Kelly Clarkson?

I’m not aiming for the grand prize. I would be happy to win fifth runner up. A literary Chris Daughtry or Adam Lambert. Not everyone knows their name. Not everyone knows their work. But some people in some parts of the world are listening. 

I think that would be enough.
____

Evyenia Downey is a writer and poet from Toronto, Canada. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of King’s College Halifax and a certificate in poetry from the University of Toronto. She writes about relationships, identity, and mental illness.

Starting the Next Chapter

August 29, 2022 § 23 Comments

By Meg McGovern

In my sixty-one years of life, most have revolved around a school calendar. Unlike people in the business world whose fiscal year is January to December, a student-who-has-become-a-teacher’s new year begins at the end of August. 

When the school year culminates in June, teachers are exhausted and have a lengthy to-do list for summer vacation; clean the basement, organize pictures, shred old receipts and bank statements, get the carpets cleaned, tend to the gardens, schedule physical and dental appointments for all family members including the dog. The list goes on. For me, a buzz of new energy kicks in that first week of break, and I begin tackling my list. Summer gives me the luxury of swimming laps in the morning, having coffee with friends or playing pickle ball, spending time writing, and then getting to the list. By the second week of summer vacation, fatigue from the school year creates a fog so dense I can’t see straight. The list becomes less important. Instead, a book and a chaise lounge entice me to the porch. There’s always tomorrow, I tell myself. When my husband, Brian, gets home from work, he pops his head out the porch door and says happily, “My summer wife has landed.”

Brian and I spend July visiting our sons, other family members, and friends, or exploring a new destination. This year was no different, except for when the calendar went from July to August. I sat on my beach chair overlooking Lake Champlain, coffee in hand, and Gia—our yellow lab—at my feet. The early morning water was smooth like glass. The Vermont mountains, in various hues of greens and blues, rose above the lake. Sailboats looked like toys in the distance. With no work worries, I felt at ease and immersed myself into the quietness. August has always signaled the time to wrap up my to-do list until next summer and get my mind back to teaching. August, when the back-to-school commercials begin, the month of perpetual Sundays, has always given me a mix of excitement and agita. 

The excitement is for a fresh start. Teachers, unlike most professionals, begin each new year with a clean slate, a new roster of students, new supplies of paper, notebooks, sharp pencils, highlighters that work, glue sticks, and a sparkling, uncluttered classroom. I redo the bulletin board backgrounds, set up a writer’s workshop center with filled staplers, sharp pencils in a container for borrowing, and lined paper. On my desk are empty baskets for the piles that will soon build up, a new calendar, and a gradebook. The first few days of school are spent catching up with colleagues, getting to know students, remembering 115 new names, setting up rules and expectations, and creating a positive learning environment. The agita is for the knowing, the knowing that after the honeymoon weeks, the hard work begins, and it is all consuming for the next ten months. 

I officially retired from teaching Language Arts in the public schools on June 30th of this year. July 1st began a new journey which comes with mixed emotions. I will miss those beautiful moments when a student writes from their heart about his dog that died and cries the tears that needed to be shed, when a student tells me I am her trusted adult because I listen, when a parent thanks me for having faith in their child when no one else does. Other days when I can sit at my desk and write for five hours at a time working on my memoir, I know this was the right decision. Some question if I will be bored—a word I dislike by the way. When a parent would suggest their child was bored in school, I’d suggest reading a classic, writing a story from a different angle, going beyond what is being expected from the teacher. So, when people ask me if I will be bored, I say, “Heck no. There are not enough years left in my life to read every book and write every story and accomplish everything I still want to do.” 

When school starts on August 31st, I will head to Staples and buy myself a few composition notebooks and fine tip pens for my own writing. I will embrace this next chapter, open to its path, wherever it may lead.
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Meg McGovern is an author, educator, and speaker. She is the author of We’re Good, The Power of Faith, Hope & Determination. Meg recently retired from teaching middle school Language Arts. She is an Assistant Editor for Brevity and has written several essays for their blog. Meg earned an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Fairfield University in Connecticut and is currently working on a memoir. She and her husband live in Trumbull, Connecticut with their yellow Labrador, Gia. Together they enjoy skiing and hiking with their two adult sons.

Get Thee to a Writers’ Conference… and S T R E T C H

August 26, 2022 § 12 Comments

By Michèle Dawson Haber

Three weeks away from the terrifying milestone of putting my draft memoir in the hands of a developmental editor, I started to question the wisdom of registering for Hippocamp, the annual conference for creative nonfiction writers sponsored by Hippocampus magazine. I was in the final stretch of getting the manuscript in as good a shape as possible and attending the conference would mean five days off task at a time when I could least afford to get sidetracked. 

But I was stuck in a self-hating rut, weary of chapters and sentences that led nowhere, scenes dark and serious, and reflections so shallow not even a snorkel was required. The few remaining “[xxx]”s where more research was needed only paralyzed me further. I needed a break—I needed to stand on my tippy toes, reach my hands to the sky, wriggle my fingers, and lift my face to the warmth of the sun. 

To draw up (one’s body) from a cramped or stooping position

And so, I left the house, boarded a plane, and took myself to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Once at the hotel, I wandered the maze of halls, weaving between wedding parties, bodybuilders, and young parents attempting to lift the spirits of travel-weary children. Revolving glass doors, four fluffy white pillows, endless escalators, mac and cheese with pepper jam, phantom elevator bells, herb and flower market scents, and giving in-person hugs for the first time to all my zoom writer friends—how good it was to get away from my keyboard!

But changing scenery by itself wasn’t going to alleviate the guilt I felt about not working on my revisions. Would the content of the conference sessions help me overcome my inertia?

To reach out (extend)

Opening the conference menu of deliverances, I scanned the options, my subconscious looking for comfort and safety—sessions that would affirm I was on the right path. What was I thinking? This was a writers’ conference, hadn’t I come to challenge myself? The session choices were all a stretch, each representing an alternative approach to my well-worn perspective: Second person POV, writing about religion, writing like a musician, the art of the interview, writing about trauma, recognizing implicit bias, adding humor to your writing, choosing your voice, or structuring your memoir like a novel. They all excited me, I wanted to attend all these and more. The offerings promised to extend my writerly comfort zone and that was exactly what I needed. 

Over the next two days I knocked off as many sessions as my attention and energy allowed. The presenters of these sessions gave me fact-checking and research tips to help me fill in knowledge gaps, awareness of implicit biases that may worm themselves into my writing, strategies to lighten up my more serious chapters, and ideas on employing different voices to heighten the realism of my narrative. Other sessions provided me tips on querying, networking, editing, and getting my essays into literary magazines. There was such a variety in the presentations that no emerging writer’s questions went unanswered. 

To go as far as or past the usual limit of something

Attending a writing conference involves a kind of stretching—I reached beyond my comfort zone and opened myself up to new ways of thinking, learning, and doing. Supported by the friendliness and generosity of the presenters and my fellow attendees, I was reminded that progress and growth are possible. Nothing underscored that conclusion better than the keynote address by Carmen Maria Machado. I didn’t expect that hearing this brilliant writer’s experience of writing her memoir, In the Dream House might increase my confidence, but when she talked about her struggles with processing, structuring, and revising, I felt I could make peace with my own floundering. All writers wrestle with similar things—struggle does not equal failure. As she said to a rapt audience, “Writing a memoir isn’t simply recording what happened—that’s called a diary—writing a memoir is fundamentally an act of shaping real life into a meaningful, beautiful, interesting story. And that is fucking hard.” In the moment I needed it most, Carmen Maria Machado validated my effort and my art.

I could have stayed home and had five days more with my manuscript (well, maybe a bit more if you add the time it took to write this essay), but I’m certain it wouldn’t have had the same impact as attending the Hippocamp conference. It wasn’t just the acquisition of knowledge that I gained—being and learning in a community of writers gave me the clarity and inspiration to come back home and attack my work-in-progress with fresh vigor. I have new strategies to call upon now and clearer insight into what needs fixing. Will I finish revising by my deadline? Who knows—but I’m more ready than ever to work hard and lean into that stretch called writing. 

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Michèle Dawson Haber is a writer, potter, and proud Canadian who currently resides in Toronto. She is working on a memoir about step-adoption, family secrets, and identity. Her writing has appeared in Salon.com and The New York Times. More at www.micheledhaber.com.

Advice on Writing Through a Book’s Mushy Middle

August 25, 2022 § 10 Comments

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

A eulogy I wrote for my father expanded into journal entries and eventually my book, ASYLUM: A Memoir of Family Secrets. I long dreamt that those loose collection of journal entries might become a book, but for many years they were arc-less and therefore not coalescing. There was no discernible beginning, middle, and end. But those entries, the impetus to start a writing project — I wouldn’t dare call it a book at the time — formed my literary North Star. 

As Emily Dickinson wrote: “I am out with lanterns looking for myself.” I searched for myself in every corner of my memory, soul, in every rare photo I had, in every journal entry I wrote, and in notes I jotted down. In that process, I found profound, surprising things about myself and the other protagonists in my life story. 

One of the best pieces of advice I received from a friend was this: Find people who knew your father back in the day. I won’t give away the secret at ASYLUM’s core but researching my father’s life blew my memoir open. My nascent book was no longer all situational — I had a story to tell. 

So, I threw away many pages of false starts and bruised prose. Then, armed with knowledge from my research, I began to write again. A word about research. In my case, there was little or no paper trail about my father so, I learned about him in his university library. There I read his alumni magazine class notes beginning in 1940. I sussed out facts casually mentioned, which led to an astonishing connection. But mostly, I talked to people. Many of them claimed to remember nothing. However, their foggy memories did not deter me. I gently asked questions and found gold to mine in those conversations. 

And research — don’t be daunted by it. For me, it was the skeleton key that opened submerged parts of my family history. Research takes many forms. It can be as accessible as reading someone’s favorite book or rereading your favorite book. The bottom line is we are the experts on our stories. Only we can tell a particular story. Bearing that in mind sustained me in slogging through my book’s “mushy middle.” And when I reached the other side, I found my research had buoyed my story. 

The importance of ongoing note-taking sparked memories and ideas. Again, this doesn’t have to be daunting. For my next project — notice superstitious me is hesitant to call it a book— I’m keeping an ongoing hodgepodge of notes on my Notes app. I did that to some extent while writing ASYLUM, particularly when I needed to keep track of who I had to talk to, where I had to go to find my father. Write everything that pops into mind. Those words, those lines will beckon again and enable you to go deeper into your book. 

In the mushy middle, all kinds of characters will be vying for attention to include them. Invite them into the book — it doesn’t mean they will stay. But getting to know a crowd of characters enabled me to know myself better. I love this Joan Didion quote: “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise, they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”

Didion’s observation is a manifesto for the memoir writer. 

A character, usually not the writer, constantly lurks and then threatens to take over the narrative. My mother is necessarily a major character in ASYLUM. But, my goodness, she threatened to hijack the book at so many points. And maybe she did occasionally. In the mushy middle, give the characters and yourself permission to roam around the narrative. That’s what revision is for. And speaking of revision — do not go down the revision rabbit hole in this tender middle. Instead, generate, generate, generate material with which to sculpt. Nothing is wasted – think of it as literary compost to enrich the writing, the story, yourself. 

A few words about the last part of the book: the ending is embedded in the narrative, it’s embedded in you, the writer; it always has been. You will realize it was hiding in plain sight. I wrote my ending at what felt like the last moment. But it wasn’t the last moment; it was a cumulative moment for me and my book. 

I’ll be more specific — I end with returning to where my parents were married and say the Kaddish for my father there. This worked in that my parents’ marriage is front and center in the book and saying the Kaddish — the Jewish prayer of mourning — was central to the stages of grief I went through. It was also a significant strand in the book. 

And last words of advice — no matter how tempting, and I know the temptation well — do not abandon your book. It needs you and you need it. This is your story, your moment. You’re important, and so is your story. Keep taking notes even if it is on the back of a restaurant menu while your dinner companion is in the loo. Those bits will happily surprise you as you come upon them again and welcome them into your writing.  

And journal your way out of conundrums. Free write, and if possible, handwrite in a notebook. It makes a keen impression on the mind, on memory. Truths and images and insights will inevitably emerge. And remember, you did not write to bury anyone but to bring them to life. 

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Judy Bolton-Fasman is the author of ASYLUM: A Memoir of Family Secrets from Mandel Vilar Press (2021). Her essays and reviews have appeared in major newspapers, essay anthologies and literary magazines She is the recipient of numerous writing fellowships, a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a Best of the Net nominee. Find more of her work at: www.judyboltonfasman.com 

To Tell or Not to Tell: The Conundrum of the Nonfiction Writer

August 24, 2022 § 3 Comments

By Holly Hagman

TW/CW: Mention of sexual assault

While I was in the process of earning my MFA, constantly drafting but never sending out any pieces, a friend of mine announced their first acceptance to a literary journal. While celebrating over dinner and white wine, they told us the essay was about their mother’s alcoholism. I asked them if they had told their mother about the piece – its existence, acceptance, and pending publication. 

“Hell no,” they told me, “And I don’t plan to.”

The concept, to me, was foreign and bizarre. At least, that’s what I thought, until I wrote the piece I never expected to write. 

About halfway through my MFA after most of the writers in my close friend group had been published, I was spending my down time on Submittable, sifting through calls for creative nonfiction writing when a title labeled “Recipe for Healing” popped up in my feed. It was a call for submissions to a magazine that published true stories from survivors of sexual violence and assault. Suddenly, my fingers moved across the keyboard involuntarily. Before long, I had a completed draft in front of me that shared a story I hadn’t told anyone – not even myself – since the night it happened. 

I agonized about whether or not to send it out. I closed my eyes and clicked submit, then breathed a sigh of relief. I figured it was a rite of passage to get rejected before the idea of publication was even a remote possibility. Soon, I would be sure to receive a form email from Submittable telling me this work was not ready to be shared with the world.

“Thank you for sending us your piece,” the email read, and where I expected to see a “We regret to inform you…” instead was a “We are delighted to let you know…”

Flabbergasted. Astonished. Bewildered. Someone wanted work that I wrote? An editor read my writing next to a bunch of other talented writers selected me?I wanted to shout it from the rooftops or pass out business cards to random passersby on the street that read “Holly Hagman – Published Author.” When taking into account the fact that the editor could have slept poorly the night before or gotten into an argument with their spouse or spilled their morning coffee on their pants before reading submissions, it’s a miracle when anyone gets published.  

In my excitement, I responded that I would be happy to publish this piece, which was both true and false. I was happy that my work was being recognized, but I was terrified to share this work with anyone, especially my family. The “Hell no, and I don’t plan to” from the year before seemed more appropriate now than it did at the time. I no longer wanted to rush to Staples and invest in business cards. Instead, I wanted to wake up from this dream, check my email, and find it had all been a figment of my imagination. 

Leading up to the publication date, I thought of my options. I could email the publishers and pull the piece, which, let’s face it, was not a real possibility for my “hungry-for-a-publication” self at this time. I could reach out and change the name associated with the essay to a pen name, like the one I made up for the time I almost got a job as a ghostwriter. That didn’t seem fair either, though, because, after all, this was my story, and if anyone was going to share it, it seemed like it should be me. 

I decided to tell. Luckily, it went surprisingly better than I expected. Since then, my confidence has been bolstered such that I’ve published work about my strained relationship with my father, my mother’s physical disabilities, a toxic workplace, my period, and many other proverbial taboos. 

The desire to share our stories is innately human, as is the instinct for self-preservation. In the end, it can be nerve-wracking to make ourselves vulnerable, our skeletons in the closet exposed in black and white for all the world to see. The option to remain anonymous can only be determined right or wrong by the sharer of their story. 

There is something to be said, however, about the sense of community surrounding the subjects that seem impossible to write. I find that the stories that are hardest to share are often the ones that are most needed. 

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Holly Hagman is a teacher and writer from a small town in New Jersey. She graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a BA in creative writing and an MAT in secondary education. She also earned an MFA in creative nonfiction from Fairfield University where she has been an assistant editor for Brevity and the nonfiction section editor for Causeway Lit. She is a former nonfiction editor for Variant Literature and the current nonfiction editor for Porcupine Literary. She teaches high school English at a therapeutic school for students with emotional and psychiatric illness. She tweets @hollyhagman.

How to Write a Personal Essay With Facts

August 22, 2022 § 22 Comments

By Dian Parker

To write an essay, an engaging, attention-holding essay, is to write with focus coupled with the ability to meander, consider other terrain, remember other times, appreciate small details, follow your intuition and curiosity ‒ in other words, be creative.

Women can have babies and therefore are usually good caretakers of other people, along with an uncanny ability to multitask. Men like my husband tend to be more singularly focused and are less adept at doing two things at once. Ask any woman who does most of the cooking in a household. She can hold the baby, talk on the phone, and make stir fry. Ask a man what he did that day while he chops the carrots, and he’ll either stop chopping or stop talking. I’ve asked many women if this is their experience, and they all roll their eyes and say yes. You, the reader, may rile at these generalities but in my 70 years on this planet, I’ve found this to be the case. 

In the Atacama Desert of Argentina, the driest place on earth, with temperatures reaching 104 during the day and down to 40 at night, long distance runners test their endurance. The grueling race takes seven days, with an ascent and descent of 11,500 feet. My husband, if he chose, would be up for this task. It would feed his uncanny ability to hold his focus on one task for as long as it takes, like opening our vacuum cleaner to figure out why it’s not working (it is 20 years old, but that is not a consideration for him).

If, on the other hand, I ran that race, I’d want to examine the particles of sand beneath my feet, stop to sift the tiny stones through my fingers, revel in the colors of ochre, sienna, and umber. I’d want to feel the heat under my body as I lay stretched out at night, taking in the brilliant high-altitude sky. As I was running, I might think about the high school play I was in where the bench flipped over and knocked me out. Or maybe about the frigid night I spent lying on the frozen ground without a sleeping bag because my brother said we wouldn’t need one.

Whereas my husband, running the desert race, would focus so completely on keeping his feet moving and his breathing regular that he’d never consider memories of other times to interfere with his goal – to finish, and maybe even to win.

In one Atacama Desert race, the fastest runner took 24 hours, shy 11 minutes. He is Vicente Garcia Beneito from Spain, a firefighter. Being from a hot country as well as fighting fires must have helped him run in the desert. Lest the reader be concerned, women have also won races in the women’s division of high-intensity races in the Mongolian, Namibian, Antarctica, Lapland, and Georgian deserts. 

But when writing an essay, it’s best not to run, let alone be too hot and thirsty. It’s best to take your time. Sweep the floor, give the kid a bath, cook dinner, and read lots. To write an essay takes time and endurance, a single-minded focus along with a willingness to riff in the imagination without trying to win.

Now, a man can do this too and plenty of great writers have been men. We all are alike in so many ways. It’s only that some of us would want to run in the driest place on earth for 155 miles, whereas others of us would want to write an essay, sitting down with a cup of coffee, while a soft breeze plays across our typing fingertips. 

If I could only be more like my husband, I might know when my essay is finished. If he were more like me, our vacuum would still be broken.

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Dian Parker’s essays and short stories have been published in 3:AM Magazine, The Rupture, Epiphany, Tiny Molecules, Burningword, among others, and nominated for several Pushcart Prizes. She has traveled extensively in the desert and can be reached at www.dianparker.com. She tweets @dian9parker.

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