A Bird’s-Eye View

A Bird’s-Eye View (a new essay about the writing life)

“Maybe you just need some distance.” Words often offered as a gentle suggestion when perhaps your writing isn’t going as planned. Maybe you’ve even said these words to yourself. You keep re-reading the same pages, changing a word or a sentence. Then putting the original word back in. Looking at other drafts and deciding you should have stayed with Draft #3. Or maybe Draft #5 is better. Or maybe…

Therein madness lies. Or at the very least, frustration.

But you have to stick with it, don’t you? Persevere. Now’s not the time to wimp out. You always knew that Draft #2 was your best. Maybe the ending from #4 could be tacked onto Draft #2 somehow. That ending was really good. Some of your best work. Continue reading

Stick the Knife In: Then Twist

Stick the Knife In: Then Twist (a new essay about writing)

I’ve been thinking a lot about vulnerability lately. It’s no mystery why my thoughts keep going there – I’ve been writing a memoir about being a sister for the past two years. Naturally I would feel vulnerable writing about family, right? After all, the funny/but not funny joke in nonfiction and memoir writing classes is: “I want to write about my family, but I have to wait for them all to die first.”

That’s a bit extreme. But it does show the depth of vulnerability many writers experience when even considering writing about personal topics. And family is often one of the most personal. Of course there are many other subjects that are also personal, and require a writer to be vulnerable. Illness, physical or mental trauma, experiencing some event (either painful or joyful) out of the ordinary – all of these have their place on the vulnerability spectrum. Writing about any of them requires the writer to go inward, excavate, examine, and then turn that into engaging prose.

So much easier not to even go there. So much easier not to probe.

Continue reading

In Our Writing We Trust

This new essay was just published in the literary journal The Tishman Review. Read here or visit http://www.thetishmanreview.com/

Whenever I teach a class about writing and publishing, there is always a student who asks, “Aren’t you worried your ideas will be stolen?”  This is probably because of my teaching philosophy, which is to share everything in the world I know that might help them.

I always answer, “No.  I’m not afraid my ideas will be stolen.”  In the first place, the very essence of an idea is that it can’t be stolen.  An idea is an intangible thing.  Add to it the writer’s voice; toss in her version of plot, character, and setting; and you’ve got something that can’t be exactly duplicated.

Maybe there are only two or three or twelve basic plots, as some writing teachers like to point out.  And maybe if that monkey sits at the computer long enough it will eventually type out Romeo and Juliet.  I tell my own students that most good stories are basically about three things: love, loss, or longing (or any two or all of these in combination).  On the surface that might not seem to allow for much creativity, but the beauty of it is that there are as many stories about love, loss, and longing as there are human beings. Continue reading

The Cheering Section

I was trying to think of a way to announce that I just signed with a literary agent this past week, who will represent me and my brand new memoir, The Queen of Everything, without sounding like I was bragging. That’s the weird thing about social media (for me, anyway): whenever I “announce” or “share” publication news, or news like this – that I have signed with an agent – I feel like I am “tooting my own horn.” The fact that I am using so many quotation marks, by the way, shows my ambivalence about this.

Most writers I know are pretty solitary creatures. We can socialize at cocktail parties just fine, and I think I even make a pretty good dinner partner; but I can also go for huge stretches of time alone with my laptop and books and notes. I normally take time every morning for walks with friends, and I spend dinner and evenings with my husband. But during the time when most people are either at work or golfing or playing tennis, I am happily alone. For hours.

At the end of all of those long hours, sometimes a book is born. Along the way, short stories and essays and poems also get birthed. The shorter pieces get sent out and published, submitted by the author herself, and today you can even publish a book on your own. But most professional writers I know dream the dream of having a book taken on by a literary agent, who will then sell the manuscript to a publisher. I myself have been dreaming this dream for many years. I myself have had several false starts on books that went nowhere.

But now I do have a book. And an agent. I have not met Liz Parker of Inkwell Management in person yet, but she sounds really nice on the phone, and she has a good sense of humor. She must, if she loves my book, because my book is pretty funny in parts. In other parts it’s pretty sad though, but that’s pretty much what a memoir is – like life, it has funny and sad parts.

When people ask me what my book is about, I say it’s about being a sister. The funny and the sad parts. Liz said, about my sister with a brain injury – who is the fulcrum of my story about being a sister – that my sister is a “rock star.” I never thought of my sister that way, but I am so happy that she just naturally came across like that in my book, and that Liz saw that she is a rock star. That made me want Liz to represent my book.

Because in life we all need a cheering section, whether we are writers or not. Or if not an entire cheering section, at least one or two or three people who wish you well and are cheering you on to do better.