"Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart." ~ William Wordsworth

The Writing Life Too

And if you're reading this, it means you're not writing.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Should you re-query?
Gray out there this morning but we're in for a spat of nice weather. But back to the sticky question: should you requery an agent who has rejected your manuscript? My answer has always been yes. Especially if the agent or editor added a personal note or seemed to have taken time with your manuscript the first time. Especially if you've truly reworked and refined it. Agent Allison Win Scotch weighs in her blog:

"Tricky question, and I'm not sure that there is a perfect solution here. To begin with, I wouldn't requery anyone whom you've queried within the past six months. Overhauling a manuscript (especially your first) takes time, and I don't think agents would think you've done a fair job (and aren't thus wasting their time) if you'd managed to do this in a few months or so. From there, I'd start off by personalizing your query to those who gave you positive feedback the last time. Something along the lines of,

"Dear XX, Back in June of '09, I queried you with TITLE OF BOOK. At the time, you thought I needed to sharpen the conflict and dialogue. I have spent the past year doing just that, and I'd welcome the opportunity to requery you."

And then I'd post your query. The above language is rough and just off the top of my head, but you get the idea. ...."
You might want to check out some of her other posts on the writing/publishing biz.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

When I first heard Cheryl Strayed read from her upcoming memoir Wild, I knew she was the real thing.  She was reading a segment where she describes the beginning of her hike alone along the Pacific Crest Trail and everything is going wrong—her feet hurt, her camp stove doesn’t work, she’s ill and hungry. She stepped off the trail for a bit and wrote about these encounters. Afterward, I realized that she’d captured pathos on the page—her desperation, grief, humor and need all rolled into a sort of raw mix of revelation—not an easy thing to accomplish. After the reading I devoured her novel Torch, recognizing the upper Midwest where we both hail from, the hungry truth of the emotions and relationships shaped on the page. It’s about a working class family and in which the mother dies of cancer and all the pain of that loss. She called it Torch because since her own mother died when she was 22, she felt like a torch singer, carrying on after someone leaves. Then I was online one night when she announced on Facebook that she’d won the Pushcart Prize for her lovely, lovely essay about writing and the venerable Alice Munro. Her work has also appeared in places such as The Sun magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Doubletake and The Best American Essays. She’s a writer to watch and learn from. Simple as that.

Q: Since you're a mother of two and you also teach, I'm wondering how you organize your days and writing time.
A: I work when someone else is taking care of my kids--which means, for the most part, when they are in school. (My son is in kindergarten and my daughter in preschool.) Deadlines tend to dictate my schedule. Unfortunately, I'm the most productive when I'm up against it, like so many of us. I also write well when I can really sink into it and have long periods of uninterrupted time, which is very, very hard to find when you're a parent of young children. Before I became a mother, I used to go away on writers' residencies to get serious work done. I can't do that much anymore because I can't leave my children for weeks and months at a time, but I do create my own mini-residencies on a fairly regular basis. I hole up in a hotel for 2-3 nights and write like a maniac. I come home exhausted and wired and with more pages than I thought possible.

Q:  You write about loss and grief--fertile territory for a writer. Can you talk about that a bit?
A: My mom died when I was 22 and she was 45. She was my only real parent (my dad hasn't been in my life since I was about 6) and so when she died I became an orphan. I was a grown up technically, but I still very much needed my mom. Her death profoundly changed my life. I had to find my own way in the word in a really stark and lonesome way. My grief couldn't help but become my subject matter. It was the story I had to tell. I've told it in different ways in different forms over the years, both fictionally and nonfictionally. I don't really think that I write about grief so much as I write about love. What is grief, after all, but a deep sorrow and longing for those we loved the most truly and fiercely? Sometimes I wonder what I would have written about if my mother hadn't died. There is so much material in all of our lives. Where would my eye and my heart have landed had I'd been lucky enough to be a woman who still has the love of her mother? The question takes my breath away every time I ask it.

Q: Is writing nonfiction such as your essays and upcoming memoir a different process for you than writing fiction? Along those lines, do you plan the narrative arc of your nonfiction pieces as you would fiction?
A: The two feel very much the same to me, as a writer. What I mean, is that when I'm actually writing I'm reaching for the same feeling on the page, regardless of genre. With fiction I draw on real life and whatever I decide to make up; with memoir, it's all just from real life. But in each I try to find and reveal the layers of truth within the story. I tug hard on language and metaphor and meaning. I structure the plot and revelation in ways that seem pleasing and clear. You use the word "plan," but I don't really plan. I get vague ideas or images and begin writing. I see where the story takes me. It like riding a runaway horse. You just hold on.

: What is the toughest part about being a writer for you and how do you get past it?
A:  It's hard to make a living, or at least a consistent and reliable one. I've been fortunate enough to sell a couple of books and that's helped tremendously, but it's still an incredibly uncertain existence. And of course money is time--time to write instead of teach or wait tables or write something that's not your "real work." This is pretty much a universal experience for writers who don't have financial support from spouses or parents. I've taken serious financial risks in order to write my books. I accrued significant credit card debt in order to "buy the time" to write. It seems somehow untoward to say that, but it's true. I don't regret those enormous credit card bills one bit--it came out okay in the end--but writing is definitely not a career path for the financially faint of heart. The other tough part is the writing itself. I love to write. There is no feeling like it when it's going well. But it's hard to get to work, to stick with it when it seems as if the whole thing is a failure, which is rather often. I've learned you simply have to forge ahead and trust the process. It's always going to feel miserable, but one mustn't let misery win.

Q: So many writers are afraid to write what they really want to write, what they dare not say on the page. Could you give us a preview of your keynote speech about writing from the fearless place?
A: Fear is a piece of most of the best things we do. I think if you never experience fear about something you've written you're probably not doing the work you need to do. I'm going to talk about what happens when we embrace fear, when we take it all the way to its darkest, realest place on the page.

Q: What books are on your nightstand?
A: An as-yet unpublished novel called "The Empress Chronicles," by Suzy Vitello Soule. It's terrific and totally absorbing. Suzy is in my writers' group.

"A Witness In Exile," a book of poems by Brian Spears. Not only are the poems great, but there's a snake and a candied apple on the cover. Brian is the poetry editor at TheRumpus.net.

Erin Belieu's book of poems, "Black Box." The first line of the first poem in the book is: "When the man behind the counter said, 'You pay / by the orifice,' what could we do but purchase them all?" Erin is such a brilliant literary badass. Plus, she's one of the founders of VIDA: Women In Literary Arts, which is an organization dear to my heart--I'm on the board of directors.

An advanced reader's copy of a novel called "Sleight," by Kirsten Kaschock, which will be published by Coffee House Press in October. I haven't started reading it yet, but I know it's going to be amazing. Every word Kirsten Kaschock writes makes me feel like I've been stabbed in the head. In a good way.
Q: What project is next for you?
A: I have three things at various stages of completion. One is a collection of memoirish pieces I've already written that I'm shaping into a book. One is a long personal essay that's threatening to turn into a novella-length memoir. One is a novel that I've been writing silently in my mind for the past year, though I've only managed to get two pages of it written because I've been busy writing other things. It's about a trio of people who live together in a house in Southeast Portland. They're housemates who span three decades in age, from early twenties to early fifties. One is a radical political activist who spent some time in a cult. One is an orphan from the Midwest like me. One is a trust fund baby who plays guitar in a punk band. The first line is: "Bliss was furious about the eggs."

Cheryl Strayed will be the keynote speaker at Summer in Words, talking about The Fearless Place. She will also teach a workshop The Art of Revelation, both on Saturday, June 25th.
"This is perhaps the most noble aim of poetry, to attach ourselves to the world around us, to turn desire into love, to embrace, finally, what always evades us, what is beyond, but what is always there – the unspoken, the spirit, the soul." ~ Octavio Paz

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Why I Write
Brooding skies in Portland today and I'm working on publicizing Summer in Words. Awhile ago I decided to share some of my emails that I receive from writers around the world. One reason I do so is because  writers are so generous and I want to share good news about the publishing world whenever possible. 

Dear Jessica,

Thank you for writing THANKS, BUT THIS ISN'T FOR US.

I had written a manuscript, thought it was awesome, and couldn't understand why nobody wanted to represent me. Then I read your book.  I took the advice you put into that wonderful little tome and tore my manuscript a new one. Using what I had learned improved the book so much that Kensington Publishing bought it in a three book deal.

Because of you I will be a published author with a book on the shelves in early 2012.

Thank you,

James R. Tuck

I wrote back to James and learned the title of his first book is  Blood and Bullets. I'll keep you posted with updates on this one.
Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Quick Take: 

Nulla Dies Sine Linea  
No day without a line.
More from Sy Safransky:
Note to self: When the writing isn't going well, don't blame it on global warming or anti-Americanism or anti-Semitism. Don't complain that with more people writing today that there must be fewer words to go around. Don't sign a petition that says the Muse is dead, or spread rumors about her temper tantrums, or try to cause a rift between her and the other goddesses. And when she finally staggers in, her hair unbrushed and her lipstick smeared, don't ask if she's been making out with younger, more handsome writers who know just what to whisper and exactly how to touch her and who have made larger donations to her noprofit foundation and, under the tale, to her political-action committee. Don't ask if size counts.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Sy Safransky on Editing:
Readers sometimes ask how much I edit my own writing. I edit until each paragraph has lost the ten pounds it gained over the winter. I edit until each sentence can survive three days in the wilderness on its own. My father taught me to look at a sentence and, if it didn't deserve to live, shoot it between the eyes. Ignore the pleas of the women and children. Take no prisoners, he said.
 From the May issue of The Sun
Summer in Words 2011
June 24-26
Cannon Beach, Oregon

  •  Eight top-quality workshops
  •  Three keynote addresses
  •  ½ day Sunday session
  •  An inspiring keynote speaker
  •  Chances to network, make friends, and read your work out loud
  •  A reception on Friday night that includes book signings and keynote
  •  An oceanside bonfire
  •  The Sunday panel discussion
  •  Manuscript critique opportunities
Etc: To receive the discounted room rates, call the Hallmark Inn before May 24th at 1-888-448-4449

Sunday, April 24, 2011

I exchange emails with a lot of writers around the world. Recently I heard from an elderly man who lives in Oregon who wanted me to know that a story he wrote was just published. He suffers from multiple health problems and is on dialysis and in constant pain. He wrote, " Writing fiction, for me continues to be an long arduous  project, but without it my life would be barren."
Keep writing, keep believing, have heart

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Etc. Sunny and glorious here today--blue sky that sort of breaks your heart it's so full of promise. Just a programming note: I'm putting up a website again. It's something I've been meaning to do, but have lacked the time and skills. I wanted a Wordpress site so I can update it myself. So I'm muddling along, but here is the first draft, so to speak at www.jessicamorrell.com And if the design changes drastically in the coming months, don't be surprised. I plan to add lots of checklists for writers, articles, and other useful information and inspiration. Meanwhile, it's time to visit the garden store as I try to visualize what my flower beds will look like in a few months. One problem I have every year is that my Bleeding Heart wants to take over... Good thing the plant is so lovely, the blooms like tiny fairies.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Unleashed Mind
Why Creative People are Eccentric
The sun is finally shining again in Portland, my neighbor's lawn mower is punctuating the day, and I've got gardening on my  mind. But before I head to the garden store,  here's another inspiring and entertaining piece about creativity in the Scientific American. Most of us who are creative have always known we're different. Now sometimes these feelings seem okay, other times not so much. From the article:
"For several years I have included a question in my creativity research that asks “Do you often feel like a square peg in a round hole?” Participants who score high on the Creative Achievement Questionnaire have answered “yes” significantly more often than those who have low scores in creative achievement. In fact, one participant—a Hollywood screenwriter—answered “no” but then wrote below the question: “I don’t feel like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. I feel like an octagonal peg with conical appendages.”

The good news is that the plight of square pegs may be improving. The ascendancy of innovative technology as a key factor in economic growth has elevated creativity from merely a positive trait to a highly sought-after commodity in the global market. Many leading corporations—such as Coca Cola, DuPont, Citigroup and Humana—now have chief innovation officers on their leadership teams. Prestigious business schools—such as Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and Yale—have added courses on creativity to their curricula. And Fortune 500 companies, including PepsiCo, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Aetna and Marriott, now routinely put employees through creativity training programs. Trainers in these classes use a variety of tools and techniques to help noneccentrics open their minds to “out of the box” thoughts and stimuli that might otherwise be ignored or suppressed.

As the market value of creative thinking increases, the round-hole world may continue to make adjustments to accommodate and assimilate eccentrics. Such accommodations already exist in communities with high concentrations of artists, writers, scientists and computer geeks. Managers within these communities tolerate bizarre clothing choices, disregard of normal social protocols and nontraditional work schedules in the interest of promoting innovation. At Dean Kamen’s company, Deka Research & Development, for example, not only is denim well accepted but employees are allowed—even expected—to solve problems and complete tasks in whatever way works best for them."

On Reading
By way of Cheryl Strayed, here's a link to The Laughing Yeti blog, and a post by Dylan Landis author of Normal People Don't Live Like This  and her reasons for reading:

I read to be someone else for a while. I read to commit crimes, get into fights, fall in love, experience grace, survive shame, take insane risks and overcome troubles. I read to die and come back. Always, I read to be a better writer. I read because Song of Solomon is the only way to spend time with Pilate Dead; I've visited her twelve times.

Why do you read?
Happy Earth Day
Let's all celebrate by living with more writerly awareness.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

There is still time to register for Between the Lines
Mastering the Invisible Elements of Fiction
Date: April 30
The Center for Contemplative Arts, Manzanita, Oregon
Times 10-5                        
Cost: $75
Readers want to be haunted by stories, characters and specific scenes that linger in their memories. While reading they want to be transported to another time and place. The best fiction does this; touching the deep layers in us. A writer achieves this effect by embedding dozens of techniques into his story to create a deep and simmering story world.  Yet, since some elements in fiction are suggested or remain invisible they’re difficult to analyze. This workshop brings these fictional elements into the light to help you create your own nuanced, layered, and compelling stories.  We’ll combine discussion and exercises, and read three short stories during the workshop session, we’ll cover various vital techniques for creating fiction with depth and resonance. Generous handouts will be included. These techniques include:  
How to structure scenes then layer them with mood and tone. 
How to make decisions about narrative voice and distance.  
How to choose the most appropriate viewpoint for the story.  
How to make pacing decisions.  
How tension and suspense contribute to every page and the part foreshadowing plays in achieving them.  
The proportion of details needed to create a story world that breathes.

Rest in peace
British photo journalist Tim Heatherington, along with his American colleague Chris Hondros  (left) were killed in rebel-held Mistastra, Libya yesterday while covering the uprising there. Rebels claim that Gaddafi forces are deliberately targeting civilians. After recently being nominated for an Academy Award for Restrepo,a documentary he made with Sebastian Junger about American troops in the Korenal Valley, Afghanistan, it was his nature and passion to follow the action. But then again it was also his job. If you haven't seen this documentary, I cannot recommend it enough. And let's all remember that Heatherington and Junger spent 15 months with the troops under hellish and dangerous conditions. Xan Brooker writing in The Guardian says, "His intense professionalism always went hand-in-hand with a childlike wonder at a world that never ceased to spark his interest."         

Sometimes when we're sitting snug in our living rooms, I think we forget about the men and women who risk their lives to bring us the news, the searing images of war, the heartbreaking realities far from home. And speaking of searing images, here a link to Tim's video diary made after 10 years of war reporting. Here's another link to a Vanity Fair portofolio of his photos.Here is also a piece in the Christian Science Monitor about the risks journalists take to gather news and images.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

More on poetry as the voice of humankind
"When I speak of poetry I am not thinking of it as a genre. Poetry is an awareness of the world, a particular way of relating to reality." ~ Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting In Time

"Poetry is the one place where people can speak their original human mind. It is the outlet for people to say in public what is known in private." ~ Allen Ginsberg

"I think there's a kind of desperate hope built into poetry that one really wants, hopelessly, to save the world. One is trying to say everything that can be said for the things that one loves while there's still time." ~  W. S. Merwin

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Nature of Emotions
Realistic, subtle yet powerful emotions are important to all storytelling. But how do you insert them without blasting the reader? How to you imply rather than state? Tough questions, right? Here's a  link that provides  a powerful diagram and chart that might help. Always keep in mind that emotions are sometimes fleeting, sometime all-encompassing, but always are part of a wider spectrum. After all, there's a lot of range between irritated and enraged.   Keep writing, keep feeling, have heart

Monday, April 18, 2011

In Honor of National Poetry Month
"Now winter, the winter I am writing about, begins to ease. And what, if anything, has been determined, selected, nailed down? This is the lesson of age – events pass, things change, trauma fades, good fortune rises, fades, rises again but different. Whereas what happens when one is twenty, as I remember it, happens forever. I have not been twenty for a long time! The sun rolls toward the north and I feel, gratefully, its brightness flaming up once more. Somewhere in the world the misery we can do nothing about yet goes on." ~ Mary Oliver

"Because it is occasionally possible, just for brief moments, to find the words that will unlock the doors of all those many mansions inside the head and express something - perhaps not much, just something - of the crush of information that presses in on us from the way a crow flies over and the way a man walks and the look of a street and from what we did one day a dozen years ago. Words that will express something of the deep complexity that makes us precisely the way we are, from the momentary effect of the barometer to the force that created men distinct from trees. Something of the inaudible music that moves us along in our bodies from moment to moment like water in a river. Something of the spirit of the snowflake in the water of the river. Something of the duplicity and the relativity and the merely fleeting quality of all this. Something of the almighty importance of it and something of the utter meaninglessness. And when words can manage something of this, and manage it in a moment, of time, and in that same moment, make out of it all the vital signature of a human being - not of an atom, or of a geometrical diagram, or of a heap of lenses - but a human being, we call it poetry." ~ Ted Hughes

"The poet must always, in every instance, have the vibrant word, that by it's trenchancy can so wound my soul that it whimpers. One must know and recognize not merely the direct but the secret power of the word; one must be able to give one's writing unexpected effects. It must have a hectic, anguished vehemence, so that it rushes past like a gust of air, and it must have a latent, roistering tenderness so that it creeps and steals one's mind; it must be able to ring out like a sea-shanty in a tremendous hour, in the time of the tempest, and it must be able to sigh like one who, in a tearful mood, sobs in his inmost heart. There are overtones and undertones in words, and there are lateral tones." ~ Knut Hamsun

"I won't get any poems written during these weeks either. It's not the first time this has happened. And I won't go on about it. There isn't much to say. Victor Hugo once summed it up as follows (Karol Berger told me about this as we strolled through Paris, the sixteenth arrondissement). When someone asked him if writing poetry was easy, he said, "When I can write it, it's easy; when I can't, it's impossible." ~ Adam Zagajewski

Sunday, April 17, 2011

"Sing your song. Dance your dance. Tell your tale."
 ~  Frank McCourt (Angela's Ashes)
Quick Take:
Writers talk about fiction as being plot-driven or character driven, literary or genre. However, what is important to remember that characters are a window into the story. Think about it.....

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Lidia Yuknavitch's The Chronology of Water
After I finished reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water I felt like my heart and brain had been sandblasted. It’s not your ordinary memoir, if there is such thing as an ordinary memoir. It’s raw and sad and real and scary. And she just takes so many risks as a writer in its pages—in not only what she describes, but how she describes it. I don’t know about you, but sometimes after reading such a book I feel that the writer has granted me permission to go deeper, to take more risks in my own writing. To find out more about Lidia and her other books, visit her here. (and turn your speakers on when you do and don't miss the films by her husband Andy Mingo) And since she's both a scholar and never-timid writer, here are some of her thoughts on writing memoir.
Q: Over the years of teaching and editing I’ve met writers who afraid to tell the truths of their lives in a memoir. Typically they say they’re waiting for their parents or other significant people to die. Could you talk about taking risks in writing and how a writer can toss out their concerns about the fallout, and simply write? Maybe my question is how do you write the truth without feeling too vulnerable?

A: Well I bet you’d agree with what I’m going to say…there is no way to write the truth without feeling too vulnerable.  And that is because that space of vulnerability is precisely where writers have to go, you know? 
But at the start of your question is the issue of the people in our lives that our stories may touch.  That is a difficultly.  In my own case, my parents both died.  And the fact is that I would not have written the book had they still been alive.  Particularly my mother.  My mother was in pain all of her life, and this book would have made her sad.  I would not have contributed to increasing her pain – at least not intentionally.  On the other hand, she would also have supported me, she would have told me I was brave.

The other “people” in my book I took different approaches with.  I called or emailed most of them.  I changed the names of a few.  I made at least one “composite.” 

But it’s just a veil we throw up when we say we can’t write stories because of how this or that person will react.  It’s a safety veil.  The reason to lift the veil and move through to your story has almost nothing to do with how the people in your life will react.  You can’t control that.  Ever.  The reason to lift the veil is to step with your full self into your own story. 
If other people find difficulty with your story, hey, they can write their own stories.

But I did list some good strategies:  contact people you are worried about, change names if you must, use a composite if you can skillfully render events without distorting their truth, and this:  trust art.

Q: Along with writing the truth, I noticed that there were lots of places in your story where you chose not to bring the reader along. Some of your story, such as your father’s abuse, is implied, not dramatized. How did you make decisions about what to leave in and what to leave out?

A:  That’s a great question for this particular book.  I have been quite demoralized and pissed off about the narrow options available to writers on certain topics:  incest, abuse, addiction as examples.  And what I mean about the narrow options is that it seems that it is the market, and not the writer or artist – who determines what kinds of stories can be told and HOW they can be told.  Put simply, when publishing houses and agents and editors get to decide there is a certain market tested way of telling a story, it means how it is told is based on how it is sold.

So one of the many formal choices I created for this book (you’ll no doubt notice quite a few formal strategies) was to concentrate on the body as a character, and on the sensory spaces we all enter in times of fear or danger.  In other words, I tried to create word houses or environments where the reader can feel what it’s like to be afraid or humiliated or damaged, without actually hurting the reader with the graphic details of my particular situation.

It’s my hope that this strategy opens up spaces for the reader to plug in their own archetypal experiences and their own individual stories – the river of sadness or pain moves through us all at one time or another.  It’s not important that my story be bigger than anyone else’s.

It’s just important that we understand each other through stories and art.

So I suppose you could say that I trusted art, I trusted storytelling, I trusted language and image and lyric to “carry” the reader’s body close to difficult things.

Q: How do writers find themes that resonate both for the writer and reader?

A:  I’m fairly Jungian when it comes to questions like this – I believe there are resonant archetypal images and emotions and rituals and … “memories” that connect us all even through our otherness. 

But it’s tricky, as your question implies, because all writers are narcissists.  HA! 

So one strategy to think about is to move away from “self” and toward artistic production.  Instead of asking myself, well, what happened to me and how can I tell it so that the reader will feel the weight of its importance, I asked, what is the central metaphor(s) of my life experience?  It was the metaphor of swimming that brought me to a place to tell my story that included the reader.  It was letting go of telling the story of my mind and telling the story of my body that opened up a place for the reader to travel with me.  To de-privatize the selfstory.  To de-mythologize the self. 

We are all born through water.  We are all made of mostly water.  It’s a much more resonant way to tell my story than to focus on me me me me. Or I I I I or the Lidianess of my experiences.  There is an I, there is a me, but there is mostly a big, huge, generative metaphor that is more important than that.That’s why I’ve invented so many metaphor exercises for writers…

Q: In The Chronology of Water you started near the middle of the story with the birth of your stillborn daughter then you moved in and out of time. How does a memoir writer find the best chronology for storytelling?

A:  Well I don’t know why ANY memoir follows a linear timeline, to be honest…And I say that because I have done such extensive research in biochemistry and neuroscience on the topic of memory.  Memory doesn’t work anything like we wish it did.  Sad, but true. 

It’s narrative that gives memory and experience its “shape.”  I made a very conscious choice to de-emphasize the linear in order to, at least a little bit, emphasize what’s not only true about how memory works, but also what’s true about narrative theory.

Two, I wanted to begin with a birthdeath in order to disturb the notion that birth is the beginning and death is the end, since I no longer believe that either about life or narrative.

Q: What is the most challenging part of writing and how do you face it?

A:  It’s ALL challenging, isn’t it??!!! Why do we do it, Jessica? HA!!  Seriously though, the two biggest challenges for me seem to recur.  The first is simply the challenge to stand up, claim the writing space, and innovate inside of it rather than mimic what’s been inherited.  To say I too, am a writer, and this is what it looks like when I do it and not someone else.

The second great challenge for me is to not get lost inside making art.  There is a HUGE part of me that would simply love to stay inside writing or painting.  To not come out.  To leave the world entirely.  I am more at home inside writing than I am out in the world.  It’s a great deal like being in water is for me—I’m more my self, I’m free, I’m in pure imagination and reflection and generation.

The tougher part for me is being out in the world like people are.  I mean I can do it, but it never feels quite right.  It’s painful and hard for me.  I need LOADS of “recovery” time after being in public.  I think a lot of writers, artists, introverts feel this way.  So I suppose I’m saying my deeper challenges are OUTSIDE of making art.  If I could get away with it, I’d stay in there and pull a few loved ones in with me.  Unfortunately, that’s probably a space of psychosis so it’s good that there are loving people in my life to keep me tethered to the world.

Q: In your memoir there’s a chapter on writing fiction collaboratively in Ken Kesey’s class at the University of Oregon. Besides the lovely aspect that Kesey served as a father figure to you, I’m wondering what he taught you about writing and seeing the world as a writer.

A:  He taught me it was OK to feel more passion about art and nature and animals than I do for most people.  He taught me that the outsider status you need to have as a writer does not require violent alienation.  He taught me that there are many ways to love, and writing is one way.  He taught me that writers go down to difficult places for a culture and bring things back up to it—that we have a vital role to play in culture—and to try not to get sucked into the consumer culture definition of what and who a writer is.  Which is a constant battle, you know…

Q: Can you talk about the role of your critique group in your writing process and life?

A:  YES!! They are the BEST!  HA…you knew I’d say that though, right?  What I had no idea about is how important a writing group like this could be to someone like myself who is at heart an isolate.This … “thing” we do every week is more than just bringing work in and getting feedback.  It’s a way to feel present as a writer and artist.  It’s a way to regather some of the energy you lose every day just trying to keep up with the dizzy whir of your life, not to mention your art.  I think too even though this will sound a little ju ju, it’s a very important secular ritual.  It recurs.  It collects.  It generates.  It receives and gives.  Every.  Single.  Week. 

I love too that we are all very different kinds of writers.  I suspect that our differences are important in terms of the ways we can help each other.  We each “see” slightly differently how to write and why to write and what to write, and we bring all those differences – all of those voices – together.  When you go home, those voices and emotions and ideas are still with you, swimming in your head in a comforting and reinforcing way.  It’s a way to be not alone and alone as a writer.
Q: What’s your best advice for writers in 12 words or less?

A:  If this is what you want, only you can invent its terms of being; write the world of your imagination.

Q: What books are on your nightstand?

A:  It’s more of a giant pile that starts at the floor and teeters upward like a paper tower…and the kinds of books in the pile have almost no identifiable connection…I’m a wicked and voracious reader…

Q: What’s next?

A: Well, I just finished a novel based on the Dora/Freud relationship called Dora: A Head Case that I’ll have to find a way to get into the world, and I’m currently working on a novel based on Joan of Arc.  There’s only ever the next book…

Friday, April 15, 2011

It's raining as if the heavens have broken. Melissa Coleman has written another great blog post at powellsbooks.com and mentioned me in it. Thanks Melissa.  In her post In the Spirit of George Plimpton, she talks about how when she lived in Portland she constantly attended author readings at Powells, her own kind of MFA program. She's described a vital link in the writing life. Sometimes when I talk to groups I mention that if I'd known that a writing life meant signing up for vast amounts of time spent alone in a room, that I'd probably have chosen another career. That's why it's so important to meet other writers, to affiliate, and hang out. We spend many hours in solitude and it helps to know that your friend across town or across the country is also sitting at a computer, working at words.

And it's vital to see your favorite authors in person at readings or speaking on panels or at conferences. To know that they spend their days and weeks and years honing their craft. Seeing their flesh, their glasses, and stooped posture. Well, I'm guessing at that last one, since writing doesn't necessarily lead to bad posture. But in my experience, it doesn't help much. (With the exception of my writer pal Marian Pierce who also teaches yoga. Her posture has posture.) When you sit in the audience and especially when you ask questions about how they write, the dream is made real. Keep experiencing the reality, the stories behind the stories that get written. If you start listening to authors speak about their lives and work you learn that the difference between published writers and unpublished writers is that we persist more. 

In her post on Tuesday Melissa has written about writing the hard stories that need to be written. She says: If I have any advice about writing personal stories, it's to learn how to write well and then write the scariest thing in your life, and don't stop writing until it's not scary anymore. Then not only will you feel better, but you might have a story that will make others feel less alone, as well.

I meet a lot of writers with a lot of reasons for why they aren't writing, or why they aren't trying to write better, or why they aren't trying to get published. So I loved this post about Melissa writing in a cafe when her twin daughters were small, wearing a base ball cap to hide her tears. What is your hard story? What do you have to say that will make others feel less alone?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Quick Reminder:
There are still openings left in my The Final Edit workshop on Saturday, April 16 in Portland. Also, there is a scholarship available. Contact me. See below for details.
keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart
How Publishing Has Changed Since 1984
An article by Peter Osnos in The Atlantic describes the many sea changes in the publishing industry. Worth reading. A look back at an age of old retail and indie bookstores, before computers, celebrity memoirs, and megachains came to dominate the literary world Peter Osnos - Peter Osnos is a journalist turned book editor/publisher. He spent 18 years working at various bureaus for The Washington Post before founding Public Affairs Books.

Osnos_Publishing_4-12_banner.jpgIn April 1984, I arrived at Random House as a senior editor after nearly two decades at the Washington Post. Publishing is now undergoing the most significant transformation in the way books are distributed and read since development of high-speed printing presses and transcontinental rail and highway systems. Looking back at the industry in the 1980s may help to explain how much has changed and what has not.

On my first day at Random House, I encountered the fundamental difference between the news business and the book business. In newsrooms, you got the story, it was printed in the paper, and then you went home. In publishing, you acquired the story, got it written, had it printed, and then—crucially—figured out how it should be sold. Because books have no advertising or subscriptions to provide revenue, the combined mission of obtaining the story and selling it was and is the essence of the art of publishing. For all that today's technology and marketing methods have evolved, the basic task remains the same: to define and find the audience for which the book was written.

"What is it that you contain? The dead. Time. Light patterns of millennia opening in your gut. Every minute, in each of you, a few million potassium atoms succumb to radioactive decay. The energy that powers these tiny atomic events has been locked inside potassium atoms ever since a star-sized bomb exploded nothing into being. Potassium, like uranium and radium, is a long-lived radioactive nuclear waste of the supernova bang that accounts for you.

Your first parent was a star." ~  Jeanette Winterson
"The poet must always, in every instance, have the vibrant word, that by it's trenchancy can so wound my soul that it whimpers. One must know and recognize not merely the direct but the secret power of the word; one must be able to give one's writing unexpected effects. It must have a hectic, anguished vehemence, so that it rushes past like a gust of air, and it must have a latent, roistering tenderness so that it creeps and steals one's mind; it must be able to ring out like a sea-shanty in a tremendous hour, in the time of the tempest, and it must be able to sigh like one who, in a tearful mood, sobs in his inmost heart. There are overtones and undertones in words, and there are lateral tones." ~  Knut Hamsun

Monday, April 11, 2011

etc. for writers
I'm sitting here at my desk as the low-slung cumulus clouds are painted with lavender and silver, changing darker moment by moment as dusk is descending. Over the weekend I stayed at the Hallmark Inn & Resort  in Cannon Beach with a room overlooking Haystack Rock and the constant Pacific. (For those of you new to the blog, it will be the setting for the upcoming Summer in Words Conference June 24-26)We ventured onto the beach trying to spot the now-endangered puffins that nest there, and strolled around town, stopping in the Northwest by Northwest Gallery walking among the works that just about stole our breath away.  ( I also learned that cartoon-looking and oh-so dear puffins mate for life--what a wonder.) On Saturday afternoon as we were walking across the sand, the Pacific rolling away at low tide, I felt that familiar peace descend that happens when I spend time at the coast. It's part setting, part stepping away from projects and day-to-day concerns, part being immersed in the immediacy of bird calls and water. I cannot recommend enough that all writers spend time near moving water.

But meanwhile, I just wanted to point out a few resources and such for writers. First, Melissa Coleman, mentioned last week in my previous blog because her memoir This Life is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone. is now in print, is blogging at powellsbooks.com this week. Her first entry is about how her book began while she was living in Portland when I met her.She has described taking part of a Dangerous Writing group and her first assignment  in the group: "I went home and wrote as if a pipe had burst."

The article that Jonathon Franzen wrote about his friend David Foster Wallace Farther Away for The New Yorker is available for a short time online at this link.

Agent Jessica Alvarez of Booklinks LLC is seeking manuscripts --women's, erotica, urban fantasy/paranormal, romantic suspense, and single title and category romance submissions.
Oh, and the cozy Cannon Beach Library has a fireplace and is run (as all libraries and bookstores should be) by bespectacled book lovers. In the 'for sale' room was a copy of Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings about how she developed a vast inner life as a child that led to writing. It smells faintly of mold and old places and beach and contains old timey family photos. I opened up a page and found this passage, which struck such a chord of remembrance and knowing so I must add it here: "In those days the dark was dark. And all the dark out here was filled with the soft, near lights of lightning bugs. They were everywhere, flashing on the slow, horizontal move, on the upswings, rising and subsiding in the soundless dark. Lightning bugs signaled and answered back without a stop, from down below all the way to the top of our sycamore tree."

Meanwhile, from my Division of $hameless Commerce: I still have openings in The Final Edit workshop this Saturday (April 16) in Portland. Contact me. Only time I'm teaching it this year.
Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Sunday, April 10, 2011

From an Editor's Desk: Create a playlist
After two days of sun the rain has returned and below my window the streets are glistening. I've been interviewing authors for about 20 years now and an interview that I have never forgotten was with Dennis Lehane soon after Mystic River was published. Lehane was riding high--his book was on the bestseller list and Clint Eastwood had just bought the film rights to it.

I learned several tips from Lehane during that interview that I've been passing on to my students and clients ever since.  For example, he suggests that writers always pay attention to how quickly other authors get in and out of scenes. Then emulate these methods. Speaking in a Boston accent, and sounding a lot like how I imagined some of his characters, Lehane told me that he writes his stories in longhand during the day, then copies them onto a computer at night. This method gives him a chance to access his creativity during that rough draft and then also lightly edit when transposing it onto his computer. Thus his first draft ends up being fairly polished.
And Lehane also creates a playlist for the books he's working on. Music affects your mood and you sometimes need to be energized, sometimes soothed by what you're listening to. Of course there are hundreds of moods inspired by music. Because your stories need a variety of moods, tones,and pacing, listening to music can help you achieve more variety.  I tried to find a copy of the Lehane interview and cannot locate it for now. I'll keep looking for it because I was trying to remember the bands he listened to. However, I recall that one band was The Clash.
Keep writing, keep listening, have heart

Friday, April 08, 2011

Just for fun: A love story
If you need a smile today, check out this story about a novelist who proposed to his girlfriend in the acknowlegment page of his novel. 
After variously thanking his publisher, his friends, his bosses and his local coffee shop "for letting me occupy a table and nurse one of your brilliant coffees for almost the entire rewriting process", Currie finally moved onto his girlfriend, Leesa Wockner. "If it's possible to fall more in love with someone every day, then that's what I do," the Brisbane-based author wrote.

"To my favourite, to the reason I live my life, Leesa Wockner, who, if she reads this, I hope will agree to marry me, despite the number of commas in this sentence."
Keep writing, keep dreaming, stay romantic
From an Editor's Desk: Choices
All fiction and memoir begins with an inciting incident--some event that starts the story and sets your character off balance and pushes him or her into some kind of action or reaction. From this first event readers want to witness characters or real people making morally significant choices. Now, this doesn't mean he or she needs to always choose between right and wrong, but rather that the choice is a conscious one and has repercussions for the rest of the story. In fact, especially in short stories, there needs to be some consequences, especially unanticipated consequences from this first choice.

Whenever possible, as the story progresses, place your characters on the horns of a moral dilemma. Moral dilemmas are emotionally involving and fraught with conflict. An example most of us are familiar with is in William Styon's Sophie's Choice. When Sophie and her son and daughter are hauled to a Nazi death camp there is chaos and horror when they first arrive. Sounds of guards shouting, dogs snarling, as the people are being sorted. Sophie must choose which of her children to surrender to the sorting process and gives up her daughter. Both her children ultimately die in the camp, but only death frees Sophie from her lifelong guilt over choosing her daughter for the death furnace.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Tsunami Books
I'm going to be at Tsunami Books in Eugene tonight for the Willamette Writers meeting along with Melissa Hart and Adam O'Connor Rodriguez. We're talking about getting published and more. Come join us. 7 p.m.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Into the Woods
Some days it feels a lot like what I do is like midwifery--helping words come into the world. Of course in my case, it's stories, not babies. I want to alert you to a beautiful excerpt from Melissa Coleman's This Life Is in Your Hands. She's a former student and client and I'm so happy for her success. I'll be interviewing here in June since she's going to be speaking at Powells in Portland on June 6. The excerpt of her memoir is in the current issue of O Magazine and you can find it online here. 
And you can find more of her upcoming appearances here.
And here are the opening paragraphs:
We must have asked our neighbor Helen to read our hands that day. Her own hands were the color of onion skins, darkened with liver spots, and ever in motion. Writing, digging, picking, chopping. Opening kitchen cabinets painted with Dutch children in bright embroidered dresses and pointed shoes. Taking out wooden bowls and handing them to my mother, Sue, to put on the patio for lunch. As Mama whooshed out the screen door with hair flowing and baby Heidi on her back, the kitchen breathed chopped parsley and vegetable soup simmered on the stove. The light glowed through the kitchen windows onto the crooked pine floors of the old farmhouse where I stood waiting.

It was a charmed summer, that summer of 1975, even more so because we didn't know how peaceful it was in comparison with the one that would follow.

"Ring the lunch bell for Scott-o," Helen called out the window to Mama. She liked to add an o to everyone's name. Eli-o, Suz-o, kiddos for the kids, Puss-o the cat. We were the closest she had to children.

As the bell chimed, Helen took my small hand and turned it upward in hers. The kitchen was warm, but her skin cool and leathery. Mama returned with Heidi as I stood long-hair-braided and 6-years-brave, holding my breath. We knew about Helen that when she didn't have something interesting to say, she'd change the subject. She smoothed my palm with her thumbs and looked down at it, her cropped granite hair holding the dusty smell of old books.
Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart
The Final Edit Workshop
April 16
Location: Room 128, Pacific Northwest College of Art,
1241 NW Johnson, Portland, OR
Times: 10:00-5:00
Cost: $75
First comes the blank page and how to fill it, then comes the written page and how to fix it. Most often it is while revising that the real writing is accomplished. This workshop offers suggestions on how to be your own editor, with a special focus on readying a memoir or fiction manuscript for submission.
We’ll cover the three stages of revision: First Revision: Looking at the big picture and analyzing the overall coherence, structure, pacing, theme, and plausibility. This is where you determine if you’ve written mostly in scenes, if the scenes are needed, and if they’re in the correct order. Second revision: The aim of a second pass-through is to make the story seamless and to fine tune individual scenes and the ending and to track character development and arc. Final Revision: This is where you think like a copy editor and correct language, style, dialogue, and hone in on details. This draft is also for making certain that there is enough tension throughout.  Additional topics include: pacing, middles, reversals, and plot points. We’ll discuss what editors notice and reject in manuscripts. Generous handouts will be provided including checklists for revision. The workshop will be geared to the specific needs of the group, so participants are encouraged to submit questions beforehand and bring along the first pages of a novel or memoir and synopsis for feedback from the group. Additional topics include:
Are there holes in the plot?
How to spot viewpoint shifts.
Making certain the story’s themes are woven into the whole.
How and why to kill your darlings.
How and when to weave in backstory.
Balancing subplots with main storyline.
Line editing for passive voice, imprecise language and purple prose.
Tips for writing a synopsis
"I feel that you take from your life experiences, but to make it fiction, you take it to a deeper level. You transform the mundane disappointments or the joys to make it true storytelling. You have to go much farther. You have to be a kind of spy and listen carefully." ~Elizabeth Brundage

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

How to Create a Platform
Folks, here's a great article by Christina Katz about creating a platform for fiction writers. That's right. Fiction writers. These days you need to bake your platform while you write your novels and short stories. I'm serious as a heart attack here. And Christina is a gal to pay attention to when it comes to platform-building.
Quick Take:
When telling stories, in all their many forms, remember that the story broadens our sympathy for a variety of characters by revealing how they're thinking, feeling, facing changes, acting and reacting  in their world. As you go through your days pay attention to the expressions on faces around you. If you could not hear the person's words, what does his or her face reveal?  Notice too posture and body language--so revealing, yet so difficult to express in words. Posture communicates--look closely, take notes, spy always.
Quick Take:
Remember that for many of us our goals as writers is to wake up the world.
10 Can't Miss Fantasy and Science Fiction Books
Chosen by the folks at the Kirkus Review.  I cannot wait for the new George R.R. Martin. It's been years George....
A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin
George R.R. Martin recently announced that finally, he’s nearly done writing the oft-postponed A Dance With Dragons, book five in A Song of Ice and Fire, a massive, multi-stranded and marvelously cynical epic chronicling the battle for the Iron Throne of Westeros. Given that the book incorporates story threads cut from the previous volume when it grew too huge, readers will be especially happy to hear from characters that they haven’t heard from since book three, particularly Tyrion, the much-maligned dwarf falsely accused of murdering his royal nephew and who actually did kill his monstrous father during his escape from the dungeon, and Daenerys, a pretender to the throne of Westeros who’s set up shop on a distant island, where her dragons and former slave subjects are becoming dangerously restive. As the months tick down to July (with the assistance of a countdown clock on the author’s site), anticipation will only increase, particularly after HBO’s adaptation of book one, A Game of Thrones, debuts in April. (Bantam, July)
The Sound of Water
There is blue laced in the sky today. A relief after yesterday with low clouds and the constant plink plink plink of rain. Everything is dazzling wet here with jonquils and daffodils sprouting in patches all over town and magnolias now joining the wet spring finery.

As writers we need a place outside our office, away from our laptop that restores us. I've always tried to live around water--a lake, a creek, an ocean. Some of the lakes were giants, white capped in thunderstorms, then amazingly frozen over in winter. Some were creeks running through northern prairies or rivers coming down off mountain ranges. When I was a girl in the summer most days were spent alongside rivers and creeks. Whole days of sun and water and rocks.

I'm in love the with Pacific and the rivers that run through the Northwest. So noisy and tumbling and pressing on this time of year. On Sunday I visited the eastern fork of the Lewis River in Washington. The Lewis and Clark expedition passed through the region in 1805 and commented on the water color--turquoise and the abundance of falls.When I first moved to this area I followed different segments of the Lewis into deep woods and climbed up to waterfalls, breathing in the wet, misty air. But I hadn't visited it in years, because I've followed other rivers since then.The Lewis begins on Mt. Adams and eventually joins the Columbia, which joins the Pacific at a dangerous stretch of water,  passing through forests and small towns and farm land. In spring the many falls that punctuate the Lewis are bellicose with abundance and you feel dizzy at the noisy flow.  Some days it seems so important that water pushes away your thoughts, that the sound of it takes up a lot of space inside you so inspiration is stirred or a deep quiet happens within. Some days it seems important to return to where you belong.

Where do you go for restoration? Inspiration? Where do you belong? Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart