5 Ways to Spot and Avoid Bad Writing Markets

I still remember that summer afternoon when my mother came upstairs to find me weeping into my pillow. I was 20 years old, and I had just discovered that my boyfriend had been two-timing me.

I also remember my mother’s advice: “You should be choosier about the company you keep,” she said. “Pick men who actually deserve you.”

Two weeks ago, over three decades after the boyfriend debacle, I found myself replaying my late-mother’s advice-this time about my writing career.

I had just submitted a personal essay to an online journal where I didn’t know the editor and had not previously placed one of my pieces.   Less than 30 minutes after I pressed that “send” button, I got an email back. 

4-AAAA-3M2A22-CKD2KQ-NP79CJ-HCN5ER-LM8KHA-8MGPFCRather than a  submission status, what I saw on my laptop screen was my own essay being forwarded between an editorial assistant (email gatekeeper?) and the acquisitions editor, prefaced with a demeaning, reductive note–about me.  Clearly, this person had intended to hit “forward,” but actually hit “reply.”

I won’t detail that email’s content here, but the word “ugh!” caught my eye. Then, the rest of the commentary was so off base from my essay’s intent and content, that I wondered if I had, in fact, received some other writer’s email by mistake.

Then I saw that remark about my national origin (I’m Irish born) and an assumption that I was attempting to use my nationality as an affirmative-action-styled tactic to gatecrash this particular publishing party. 

This email message was never intended for me, but it was about me.  

I re-read my submitted essay, alert for those places where any reader could or would infer or understand something so different from what was actually on the page.

As an ex-elementary school teacher,  I detected that my work had been skimmed. And, just like my onetime kiddie students who faked or fudged their reading homework, or who struggled to read at grade level, this person had filled in the blanks with what she wanted to be there. 

Before I typed my response,  I closed that email, took deep breaths, and regressed to that heartsick 20-year-old.

The truth?  The error here was mostly mine.   

My mother was right. Just like with lovers and friends, we writers need to be selective about the editorial company we keep. 

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t about having my work rejected. In two decades of writing and publishing, I’ve earned enough rejection notes to wallpaper a small bedroom. Getting our work rejected is part of the writing life.  If we are so conceited or naïve to believe otherwise, then this isn’t the right profession for us. I’ve also been super lucky in that, at least 85% of my editorial and literary agent interactions have been professional, collaborative and respectful.

Of course, there is an assumed power imbalance between those who create art and those who can purchase or showcase our creative work.  

Some writers exaggerate this power imbalance to spend more time wallowing than actually writing. A very small number of editors interpret their curatorial status as a free pass or exemption from the norms, ethics and practices of the rest of the business world.  

The bottom line: We wouldn’t hire a sketchy or unknown contractor to build an extension onto our house. Equally, we writers need to fully vet any publication to which we submit our work. I wish I had. 

5  Red Flags That This Publication Is Not For You

1. Scrutinize the bios and Google the listed editors:  Anyone with blogging skills can set up a journal and issue a call for author submissions. A quick online search of the editors’ own works and credentials will reveal their eligibility (or not) to judge or showcase your work.  If a Google or Amazon search throws up a dossier that’s mostly self-appointed or -published, then pass on this publication. 

2. Read what’s there: Look beyond the front-page advertising jingles to read most or all of its currently published pieces. Trust your own values, standards and literary poetics.  If that little voice inside says, “no,” listen to it. 

  3. Click bait titles:   Compare the  published writers’ topics with the editorial titles.   Is there a clear or hyped-up mismatch? Do the titles scream SEO, Google searches or stoked-up controversy?  If so, keep researching to find a more thoughtful, less click-hungry journal.

4. Typos, misspellings and wrongly used words: Yes, you have a responsibility to only submit well-edited and polished work. But if your target journal’s past published pieces include incorrect grammar or usage, or if the writing is too gimmicky or slangy, these are clues that nobody is in charge here. Or worse, there is someone in the editorial driving seat, but he or she doesn’t know the difference. Those typos or missing words or misspellings will ultimately reflect on you and your byline.   

5. The refrigerator magnet rejection: Some rejection notes, especially those with a few lines of feedback, will make you a better writer. But never re-query or submit to that editor who sends a note that reads like a set of those refrigerator-magnet word games. His or her “feedback” reads like a randomly chosen set of words that makes little or no sense and leaves you scratching your head and asking, “Huh?” This is a lazy response from someone who doesn’t even take the time to craft a standard, writer rejection template. 

How do you vet a new publication before submitting? Share your tips in the comments below.   

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How Father Saved Christmas – Micro Memoir from an Irish Christmas

Virtual Advent #2 (1)This is my contribution to the 2013 Virtual Advent Tour.  This blog tour was created by Kelly and Marg over at Virtual Advent to allow us to share a favorite Christmas or holiday memory.

In western Christian tradition, the real-life Advent is all about anticipation, not recollection.  But what would the winter holidays be without pulling up a chair to tell some stories and remember those who are no longer with us?

So here goes:

I grew up in a small, rural village in the west of Ireland. On Christmas Eve, you could count on two things. First, every Christmas Eve morning, my late father, who worked double-time as a lorry driver and a farmer, promised my mother that, this year, he’d clock out early and be home by lunchtime.

He never was. In those days (late 1970s), many mothers still didn’t drive, and we lived out in the country, so Dad’s late-afternoon homecoming always pushed our last-minute errands right up to and often beyond deadline.  

It was a chaotic deadline, but somehow, it all got done, and, next day, we all got to sit around a pungent and overflowing dinner table.  Second, once he did arrive home, it was always Dad’s job to tackle the Christmas tree lights.  Now, over four decades later, I can still see him standing there in the middle of our front parlor, still in his lorry-driver’s uniform, twiddling, testing and then, when he found that one, recalcitrant bulb, dead-heading it until the rest of the strand worked.   

Our house sat directly across the street from the village church, so before our fellow parishioners (of course, their trees had long been plugged in, lit up and perfect. Well lah-dee-dah!) arrived for Christmas Eve Mass, we needed to have a festive tree set in the parlor front window.   Otherwise, we’d just look like slackers.

Most years, the Grand Light Showdown involved a few twiddles and curses and bulb replacements. But one year,  despite an entire evening’s standoff and a series of grunted instructions to my sister and me (Here, hold this. No, plug that out. Try the other wall plug), those miniature lights just refused to … well, light.

My father was the uber Christmas procrastinator. We all were. I still am. But even at 8:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, Dad wasn’t a man to be beaten. He was a man of bright ideas and last-minute fixes–however unorthodox they might be.

250px-Keogan's_Bar_-_geograph.org.uk_-_618149Just as the pre-service lights came on in the church across the street, he stomped out of the parlor and through the house and across the farmyard where he revved up the car to drive three miles to the next village and its tiny, family-run shop that was sure to be open late.

It wasn’t.

When Dad got there (he later told us), the only light was in the adjoining house, where, presumably, the family had gathered around the living room hearth for a cocoa-and-cake, drama-free Christmas Eve.  Yeah, weird, huh?

Dad clanked on the shop door handle.  Yep, locked.

Then, he found a gap in the pasted advertisements and faux-snow swirls to peer through the shop window, hoping that someone was still there doing last-minute clean-up. 

Nobody.

He crossed to the family’s house where he rang on the front door.

“Just a set of lights,” he told the shop owner, who stood there in his slippers. “You don’t even have to open up the shop or the cash register. Just give me the lights, and I’ll come and pay after Christmas.” (Of course, we knew this local family, and they knew us).

“Sold out,” said the shop owner. “Sold the last set of lights yesterday.”

What transpired next I have never known, but somehow Dad persuaded or bribed the man to open up the shop and unhook the string of lights from the shop’s own display window. Were they given as a neighborly gift? Or was this an overpriced, supply-and-demand kind of transaction like scalped concert or sports tickets? I would bet the former.

In any case, Dad arrived home with a set of slightly used, commercial grade Christmas lights. He plugged them in and strung them around our tree.

That Christmas, we had the brightest blinking wattage in our village.

christmas-lights-1

Who are you remembering or missing this Christmas? Feel free to share your memories below. 

Meanwhile, jog your memory and storytelling acumen with this “12 Days of Christmas” video from Frank Kelly, one of Ireland’s best actors and humorists (he played Father Jack in Ballykissangel). I dare you not to laugh.

Posted in Christmas memoir, micro memoirs, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

On Thanksgiving: What Immigrants Bring to Our Shores

This week, a local news reporter called me. He was doing a Thanksgiving-themed piece on people who had washed up here in our coastal New England town from other countries (a la pilgrims). He was looking for local expatriates or immigrants who had  “done well.”

This last qualifier made me think. Done well. 

I arranged to meet the reporter for an evening interview at one of our local diners. There, over a cup of hot tea, I gave dates and years and reasons for leaving Ireland, followed by my motivations for staying in the U.S. of A.

I’m not sure “motivations” describes it. Most of the time, for most of us, it feels like one day rolls over into the next, and, gee, I just paid for a full tank of gas. So why waste $40 worth of refined petroleum by heading off to another country or, indeed, back to my native country of Ireland (where gas is much more expensive)?

Done well.

For some of the people I drive past on the highway every morning, I imagine that “done well” means getting to pay next month’s rent. Or it means feeding their kids for another day. Or if I stroll through certain streets in Boston or my nearby cities in the Merrimack Valley, there are plenty of people for whom ‘doing well’ means snagging a dry, warm place to sleep for that night.

wheatfieldOr for an estimated 11 million people, ‘doing well’ means getting to stay within these shores (immigration reform, let’s get a move on here), to do what they’ve already been doing: working and paying the rent and feeding themselves and their kids.  

Make no mistake about it: However “well” or sorta-well  us long-term expats may have done (and, of course, this is all relative and can implode at any time), we have a responsibility to these newcomers–to those folks not being called or interviewed by their local newspaper.

We also have a responsibility to live by that bootstrap phrase that our national and local politicians (especially in greater Boston) love to toss around and overuse: “Never forget where you came from.”   

For me, “where I came from” is no longer my native country, but my heretofore status–26 years ago now–as a wide-eyed and petrified newcomer to these shores.

I’ve never forgotten that. I hope I never will.

In 2013: What Immigrants Contribute to the U.S. Economy 

Did you know that immigrants now comprise approximately 14% of the U.S. workforce? Also, immigrants are just as likely (as native born folks) to own their own businesses—thereby creating U.S. jobs.

Often, the public dialog tends to center around illegal immigrants, but every year, far more legally-admitted immigrants come here than those who enter without legal status (immigration reform, you’re still not off the hook).

Among this legal group, 16% are sponsored by U.S. employers to fill in positions for which no U.S. worker was available, and an additional 8% come as refugees or asylees, fleeing persecution and looking for safety and freedom in the U.S. The remainder come for family reasons.

The Contribution of Undocumented Immigrants

They contribute their talents, their labor, their languages, cultures and outsider insight. Many risk their lives to come here. They also contribute cold, hard cash. Yep! Contrary to the fact-mangling vitriol I’ve had to endure at dinner and cocktail parties, undocumented immigrants do, in fact, pay taxes–a whopping 7.7 million of them, according to one study. Cumulatively, undocumented immigrant workers pay an estimated 11.2 billion into the U.S. Social Security fund, and an additional 2.6 billion into Medicare—money and benefits that the immigrant workers themselves will never be able to reclaim as benefits.

Myths, questions and answers about U.S. Immigrants 

http://wellstone.mpls.k12.mn.us/myths_about_immigrants2

NPR “Here and Now” segment, “Can Immigrants Save Small-Town America?”

Op-Ed piece“Don’t Shut the Golden Door” in the New York Times?

Test your own knowledge with this quiz from “The New Americans,” from the  PBS series, ‘Independent Lens.’

Posted in immigrant memoirs, immigration reform, Thanksgiving | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Your First Writing Draft: Typed or Handwritten?

I’m working on my first book-length memoir. It’s terrifying.

The general theme or topic: My immigration, at age 24, to America. Rather than just a ME-moir, I blend the personal narrative with national and family history, economics and psychology to examine the socio-economic, feminist and spiritual factors that made me (and 200,000 other young 1980s Irish) leave my own country.  

Depending on what gets to stay in there, I’ve written about 75 pages.

Fifty of those pages are well-polished keepers, though a literary agent or editor might have other ideas.  Mostly, I wrote and re-wrote those first 50 pages early in the morning, before leaving for work, on a laptop.  I just sat there, half asleep and clacked away.  These first 50 pages have taken me to that plot point where I’ve gotten my U.S. visa, I’ve filled in some back story (the why I left), I’ve said my goodbyes and I’ve hoisted my backpack on my back to leave for the airport and my transatlantic flight.

IMG_20131028_164614_101 (1)Then (cue the creepy music), it was time to generate new stuff, as in, a lot of new stuff, as in, the first few chapters of the American part of the story.

Oh hell.  I tell you, nothing, not even shopping for last year’s bathing suit, was as scary.

So I did the adult thing: I found a nice big pile of sand and stuck my head as far into it as I could without actually ingesting sand or suffocating myself to death.  Oh, I didn’t quit writing. Nope. I just found other oh-so urgent, must-do projects, so I could procrastinate on what I really needed to do: those first American chapters.

I don’t know why I was so frightened. Mostly, when I drafted them in my head, I felt a terrible sorrow, a mother-lion protectiveness in which I wanted to take that young emigre (me!) and lead her by the hand and protect her from all the things she didn’t, couldn’t possibly know. More, I wanted to give her a sense of and pride in herself and, most important, the chutzpaha to assert that self.

Ah, middle-aged revisionism.

Then, one morning last week, I got myself up out of bed with, “Just get to it, and stop these damn excuses.”

So I switched on my laptop. I must say, it’s a very nice laptop.  And it has this super, beautiful Facebook app and Twitter and email and … (more procrastination).

IMG_20131111_093639_755Then, thoroughly fed up with myself, I shut off the laptop and opened up my brand new journal, a well-chosen birthday gift from a great writer friend.

My hand stopped shaking.

America, at least via pen and paper, lost its scare factor. In fact, I am amazed by what this handwritten draft is unearthing, what I am managing to remember from 27 years ago. I am equally shocked to discover what the older, middle-aged me thinks about those early American years and my own immigration. Would all this memory and wisdom have come as easily in a typed first-draft?

Memory and wisdom.

I’m glad to say that there’s a good chunk of both there now, in black (pen) and white (paper).

Do you type or hand-write your first drafts?  Does it depend on the topic, in that certain subjects lend themselves to keyboard, while others absolutely must be journaled or hand-written?  

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For Labor Day: Seamus Heaney and Other Thoughts on Work and Writing

I wrote this exactly a year ago, never thinking that it would become one of many international elegies  for a great poet and wit and humanitarian.

Séamus Heaney’s poem, “Digging” has always been my favorite piece of literature about work.

Have a listen to Heaney reading from his poem, “Digging.”

Or read the printed version (below).

Random Thoughts on Poetry, Writing and Labor

As an undergraduate in Dublin, I was lucky enough to have Seamus Heaney as my professor and the chair of our English Department. As I sit here now, today, in America, I can shut my eyes and hear him reading to us in that second-floor classroom, to a rag-tag group of 18-year-old undergrads who were too young and too immature to appreciate what we were really hearing.

Years later, just before he became a Nobel laureate, I read an interview with Heaney in some Irish magazine in which he spoke briefly about his then-dual life as a working professor and as one of the world’s most esteemed poets. In the interview, I loved the part where he stated that he always considered it his first duty to earn a living and provide for his family.

My father also dug his share of potatoes and turf and God knows what else. Above all else, my father believed in paying his way, in working hard.

In 2011, a year before Dad died, he told me that he was most proud of having produced an equally hard-working family.

Today, on Labor Day, I am proud to be the kind of hard worker who could make my father proud.

+++++++++

Séamus Heaney  (1939-)

Digging

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

– from Death of a Naturalist (1966)

Posted in books and reading, Inspiration and infatuations, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Writers! Write to your own body rhythm

When my late mother met my then-boyfriend, she shared some maternal advice.

“She’s a pure devil in the mornings,” she said, nodding toward me (I thought all devils were impure, but … anyway).  Then, my mother proceeded to describe those childhood breakfasts when I sat at the table, bleary-eyed and speechless. Sometimes, I nodded back to sleep over my bowl of porridge.

I’ve never been a morning person.  I doubt I ever will. But that boyfriend married me anyway (we celebrate 25 years of mornings next week).

Over the years, I’ve gotten better at obeying that damn alarm clock, but it still takes my brain an hour or more to fully wake up. For those morning meetings at work, I have to stoke myself with extra, extra-strength coffee (there’s a *strict* no-porridge policy in the boardroom) just to be marginally coherent.

And those vacation bed and breakfasts places? Yuck. Chattery, all-guest breakfasts around the frilly dining-room table are my idea of hell.

This past spring, I really needed to increase my weekly writing output. So I began setting my morning alarm clock for an hour earlier. Also, determined to bypass the downstairs kitchen distractions (cat, husband, newspaper, brown-bag lunch prep), I bought myself a small red Thermos.

IMG_20130803_094639_788At night, I fill my Thermos with coffee, then set it next to my laptop on a small desk in an attic room in our house. As well as providing that instant morning eye opener, this nightly Thermos ritual creates the anticipation of morning writing.  

Once that alarm goes off, I roll out of bed, climb the attic stairs, turn on the laptop and unscrew my Thermos cap–all while still half asleep. 

Four or six-hundred words later, I’m still not really awake. But I’m done with that day’s writing. I’m ready to get ready for my day job.

I adore this morning solitude.  It makes my whole day go better. And, even more than extending my daily writing quota, this sleep-writing shtick has had an unexpected payout:  With my left-brain still on dimmer switch,  I have neither the urge nor the acuity to read back through what I’ve written to nitpick and change things.

Now, it’s late summer and I have an entire 70-plus pages of my book. Oh, yes, on weekend afternoons and on my days off, I’ve read through and nitpicked–and nitpicked.  But there would be little or nothing to edit if it weren’t for those early-morning, unfettered drafts. When it’s a challenge just to keep your eyes open, you just keep writing.

This article in The Wall Street Journal, “The Peak Time for Everything,” cites a growing body of research that suggests that, according to our individual body clocks, we have our own optimal times for certain tasks. And that these rhythms, not our actual schedules, should dictate when we do them.

My only question: I knew this before. Didn’t I? So why, oh why didn’t I capitalize on it? 

Have you found an unprecedented but perfect match between your daily schedule and your writing needs? Share in the comments below. 

Posted in Uncategorized, writer with a day job, Writers resources, Writing process | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

Writing about Tough Stuff (and then getting on with your day?)

I’m writing my first book-length memoirIt’s something I thought I would never, ever write–that I would never have the stomach for. 

But I am writing it. I feel compelled to write it. It’s called “What Brought You Here,” and it’s the story about my leaving Ireland at age 24 to come and live in the U.S.  The title derives from all those times when someone heard my non-American accent and inquired: “Oh, what brought you here?”

The story is, of course, about much more than just a set of economic drivers or the adventures and misadventures of my early years in America. This book is the proverbial long and complex answer to that very short question (what brought you here).

I’ve just drafted and printed the first 50 pages. I have no idea if it will ever get published.

Last Monday, I flipped back through the “easier” stuff to write and insert a really difficult scene.  How difficult? I, a woman who (mostly) breezes through the transatlantic airport departure lounge completely dry-eyed, sat here at my computer weeping.

Then, this morning, almost a week later, I got up, made coffee and tackled the second-most difficult scene. As soon as I began to write Difficult Scene 2, I instantly sank into another bout of  melancholy.

2013-06-15 11.27.38Surely this is a kind of willful psychosis?  Surely, on an ordinary American Sunday, a day when the sun is shining through my writing-studio window, it would be easier and healthier not to revisit or revive the past. To simply stay in the present?

But for better or worse,  I’ve written both scenes. In doing so, I’ve committed to typed words one of the saddest and loneliest times of my adult life.

Writing these scenes–actually the whole book so far–has taught me that sometimes, we commit our worst acts of cowardice, our most heinous acts of negligence against ourselves.

So I’m done.    I’m free to get up from this desk and go about the rest of my normal American Sunday.   

Or am I?

Posted in Inspiration and infatuations, writing and publishing, Writing process | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Busy, Guilt-Ridden Writers! Write What You Can

Two weeks ago I attended an after-work spiritual retreat at Rolling Ridge, a  retreat facility and conference center that’s located only about a half-hour from my office.

It had been a hectic week, so I welcomed this chance to kick back, meditate and just generally let someone else do the talking or better yet, shush my brain altogether.    

The presenter began with a story about two monks–one older, one younger. One day, the junior monk confessed to his mentor how, as a neophyte, he could never seem to measure up; he could never be as pious as his elders. The younger monk said, “You get up so early every morning.  You seem to pray with all your heart and soul.  I could never hope to pray like that.”

The elder monk smiled and said, “Why don’t you pray what you can, not what you can’t.”

This advice really applies to our writing. It especially applies to those of us who constantly dither between our creative lives and our other responsibilities, including work. Honestly, there are weeks when I should get a golden gloves for all the jabs I take at myself, for how much I beat myself up over all that “I can’t” do, or haven’t done or failed to do.

In her inspirational blog for writers, Barbara Ann Yoder dubs this, “emotional self-flagellation,” a state she finds counterproductive.

Barbara adds:

I think it’s important to acknowledge that jobs, relationships, cross-country moves, illnesses, and many other challenges can and do at times take precedence over writing.

For me, this “emotional self-flagellation” is often rooted in a monkish belief that only long-form writing stints qualify as “real” writing. 

Or, for another perspective, check out Lisa Romeo’s writing blog, in which she also refutes that perennial advice about writing every day.

Lisa says:

But to my mind the most detrimental piece of standard writing advice is the one that declares that in order to be a *real* writer (whatever that is), one must write every single day, often amended to include that one must write a set number of pages or words, or a set amount of time per day.

Since attending that evening retreat, I’ve been trying to change my own thought processes.

On those days when I simply can’t get 500 words on the page, I force myself to ask: What can I do?

Can I do a short morning meditation to clear my brain and develop a better and more creative attitude? Can I journal for five minutes?

journalCan I switch on my laptop and just read yesterday’s paragraph so that I have at least “visited” my work in progress for that day? Can I do a quick read-through and edit of the first paragraph? Can I write up a to-do list of what’s left or outstanding in the work? Can I play a scene through my head while I’m driving to the day job?

By focusing on what I can do, I am actually getting more writing done–or at least, I’m staying more consistently engaged in the work.

And best of all, I’m on much better terms with myself–and this life called writing.

What on-the-fly, quickie writer strategies save your writing days?

Posted in writer with a day job, Writers resources, writing and publishing, Writing process | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Writing About Traumatic Events: How Soon Is Too Soon?

Last week, my audio essay,  “Sanctuary” was published at “The Drum: A Literary Magazine for Your Ears.”  As fond and proud as I am of this particular essay and this online literary magazine, having this piece of writing go public gave me the jitters.

“Sanctuary” is about the 2005 death of my mother. In eight years, this is my first time publishing anything about that event.

Note I said “publishing.”

Not writing.

Oh, believe you me, her death made me write. And write. Confession:  I have a 3 a.m. notebook entry from one of those eerie nights when my siblings and I alternated shifts in our mother’s hospital room. That night, I tiptoed down a florescent corridor and went to my sister’s house to grab some sleep. But first, before collapsing into an exhausted and dreamless slumber, I wrote in my notebook.

After the funeral, when I returned from Ireland to the U.S. and my “normal” life–though there was nothing normal about it–I continued to write pages and pages about her and me, our lives together and the life that had just ended.

Once, I booked myself into my usual writers retreat ostensibly to work on a new novel. There, as if my fingers and the keyboard had a will of their own, I ended up writing a 60-page chronology of her cancer and death.  In fact, my just-published essay “Sanctuary” is as much about writing (and how it saves us) as it is about grief and healing.

Long before the medical and psychological research supported it, ever  since childhood, I have long believed in the value of writing about trauma and painful events.

And yet ….

With all those pages of writing already completed, why did it take me almost eight years to craft something eligible for publication?

In her essay, “Writing Through Grief: a Lifelong Writing Assignment” (on writing and re-writing her memoir about the death of her 19-year-old daughter), Eleanor Vincent writes:

First, there are my journals where raw writing is produced. But I would no more think of publishing my journals than of building the frame for a house and calling it a home. The journals are only the boards and nails, the raw materials. Then a process of refining begins with a first draft on the computer, followed by feedback from my writing group, and then many rounds of revision.”

I didn’t send drafts of my essay out for review or input. And I don’t belong to a writing group. In fact, that short little essay kind of wrote itself. But this final, publishable verision  wrote itself only because I had spent the last eight years creating what Vincent calls “the boards and nails, the raw materials” of my story.

In her essay, “The Incident of the Dog in the Early Evening – Is it Journaling or the First Draft of a New Masterpiece?” Christiane Alsop also addresses this issue of discerning between “literary catharsis” and well-honed work:

Such is journaling. Good old-fashioned journaling that helps healing. I have copious amounts of it generated around the turning points in my life. Good material to revisit in ten years when a dramatic event might become an incident in a future novel. Might. But only if, in ten years, the emotional heat has cooled to just the right temperature.”

Ten years. It took me eight. So maybe I’m ahead of the game. Or pain.

How do you cope with writing about painful events? Do you have a technique or approach for letting the “emotional heat” cool?  Or do we really need to?

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Tax Preparation for Writers: Tips and Zen and Pain

If you haven’t prepared your tax return yet, check out this great article on tax returns for artists, complete with an expense checklist for writers. This CPA’s site and ebook have all the info you need (note: this is not my own accountant).

I’m a lifelong math phobe. So tax season sends me trudging into the dining room for what I’ve come to think of as my annual tax Gethsemane.

I have my bag of receipts and canceled checks.  I have a clenched jaw, a tremble in both hands. I have a mountain of regrets for (1) My terrible childhood math teacher and (2) My conviction that numbers are really just a bunch of 9th-century hieroglyphics masquerading as 21st-century digits and invented to give us night sweats.

I’ve created my own homemade tax-prep technique.  Using my accountant’s categories, I write said categories on a bunch of sticky notes and place the sticky notes in a double row along the dining table. Next, I unfold and assign each collected receipt to its appropriate stick-note category. Then, I total the receipt amounts and write that total on each sticky note. And finally, I write that amount on the appropriate line on the tax form.

Look, numberblocksI know that it’s second-grade math.  I know I’ll never get into CPA school. But it’s the only way that works for me.

Believe it or not, this tax-prep stuff has a saving grace. For a busy woman who often can’t remember what she did last week, tax-prep season is a rear-view glimpse into the past year.

And it was a good year, full of blessings and surprises. On a freezing night in March, on the nights of my Gethsemane, I need to be reminded of that.

For example, here’s a receipt from a dinner out with three other working women writers. Oh, yeah, now I remember that night. We yapped and chatted and chewed the writers’ fat until the waiters started dimming the lights.

Oh, and here’s a canceled check for a payment to someone named Daniel. Daniel? Daniel … Webster? Boone?  Oh, Daniel. Yes, how could I forget that hipster who sold me the used desk and matching file drawers for my home office, my little writing haven?

Speaking of checks, here’s one from my favorite writers retreat. Days writing in my room. Evenings sharing dinner and chat with one of my oldest friends. Seriously, does life get any better than that?

Oooh! Here’s a fully intact MTA parking receipt from … when? Christ, with all their tax-fare hikes, you’d think that the Massachusetts Transit Authority, the MTA, could print their ticket dates clearer? Just this once, MTA, couldn’t you and your buddy Charlie be the men who actually do (tax) return?

Wait. It’s coming back to me. The receipt is from that fall afternoon, a Sunday when I took the train into Boston to read and present at America’s first public library.

And then … (cue the creepy music) … it’s time for my annual attack of tax  paranoia.  Instead of this tabletop, karst landscape of sticky notes and receipts, I see every crack, every cockroach that skitters across the floor of my prison cell–as in, tax-evaders’ prison cell.

Gulp!  And listen, why should I trust an accountant? Isn’t she also in the hieroglyphics club? They probably all have their own secret social media page, all communicating and chortling away in that mad language that …. Yo, writer. Yo. Zen. Zen. Now.

Let’s just log onto the IRS website to check and double-check these official allowances and write-offs.

“See the page on …” “Read the addendum on …” “Read our set and subset and footnotes of hieroglyphics for blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”

And then, here’s the flash point of sin or redemption for every writer during every tax season:  “Was this trip for business or pleasure?”

Phew. I’ve got the rest of my receipts. I’ve got my mileage amounts. So no final phone calls from the prison pay phone for me.

Okey dokey, what have we got here?  Oh look!  It’s from my teaching stint at the Ocean Park Writers Conference in Maine. Hot summer days. Maine ocean breezes. Front-porch conversations with my students.

And it was all, all business (heh!).

Posted in business side of writing, tax preparation for writers, writer with a day job, Writers resources, Writing process | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Writers dish on balancing writing with work and family

I’m delighted to announce that Alizah Salario, a freelance journalist from Brooklyn, NY, is the winner of my signed book, Writer with a Day Job. All of the names were entered for a random drawing.

Check out Alizah’s work at her website.

Below are Alizah’s tips on writing and you can read all of the tips in the last blog post.

Tips from Alizah Salario:

1) Don’t confuse your job with your career: Because the type of writing that pay the bills and the type of writing that creatively fulfills and sustains me are two separate things, it’s easy to feel like I’m not a “real” writer if I’m not earning money doing what I love. I often remind myself there is no shame in doing something for money in order to do what you love.

2) Find an ally: Even supportive friends have a difficult time understanding the unique rhythms of a writer’s life. Find a fellow writer – through a writing group, a friend, or simply write to someone you admire – who can relate and help you stay on track when it feels hopeless.

3) Create your own criteria: So much of what is considered “successful” on the web is determined by the number of comments, likes, or tweets. Remember that some of the best writing out there gets the least attention, and there are countless talented people who don’t get the credit they deserve. Make your own markers of achievement that don’t have to do with responses from others – otherwise you’ll constantly be looking for external approval.

Thank you to all who shared their writing processes and tips. I know I learned a lot.

Posted in Inspiration and infatuations, writer with a day job, Writers resources, Writing process | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Writers, Join this book giveaway by sharing your tips

This week I was lucky enough to be featured at The Writer’s Place, a spiffy blog by writer Nancy Christie.

Then, today, the interview gets included in Help for Writers.

I enjoyed the entire Writers Place interview, but I was especially charmed by Nancy’s last question in which she asks for my “top three takeaways” (or tips) for balancing creativity with work (based on my book, Writer with a Day Job).

Here are my top 3 tips for balancing writing and life:

1.  Define your own path to writing and writing success. Comparing ourselves with other writers is counterproductive—even deadly.

2.  If you’re a beginner writer, create an overview of your month’s typical schedule and commitments. Circle the items that can either be outsourced or dropped altogether. Only keep those commitments that are truly, honestly as or more important in your life than writing. Even if you don’t use your freed-up time for actual writing, use it for writing-conducive activities such as reading, yoga or just sitting and staring into space.

3.  Learn how to say, “no.” When we do, people are not as miffed or disappointed as we assume that they will be. We fall into these “I should” and “I must” habits because —duh!— we’re not clear with others about what we need in order to nurture our talents as writers.

So you’ve got my three tips. Now, what are yours? Insert below in the Comments section and join my book giveaway. 

If we get 15 responses (each with your hot tips), I will enter all names in a random drawing for a signed copy of my book, WRITER with a DAY JOB. I will mail the book to the winner, so make sure to include a website or blog where I can rez8079-writerdayjob6.jpgach you. Sorry, U.S. addresses only, please.

We need a minimum of 15 responses … so … pick and post your best tips… and spread the word  … 

Posted in Author Interviews ( Q & As), writer with a day job, Writers resources, writing and publishing, Writing process | Tagged , , , , , , | 19 Comments

New Year’s Resolutions for Writers: Ernest Hemingway’s “Truest Sentence”

Should some writing come with a “made-in-China” label?

In our digitized 21st century, how much of our writing is too cheap, too quick and too disposable? Has the sheer volume of digitized, podcast, broadcast and hard-copy content spawned a  24/7 static, a persistent distraction?

I have been a lifelong lover of the jigsaw process of writing, of yoking apparently disparate ideas together for a cohesive whole.  As a teacher and a writer, I have told my students and myself to “let yourself play in the word box to find that first, unfettered draft.”

But lately, I have been questioning my own advice. In the time that it takes us to pen that first draft of a 3,000-word essay or story,  have the writing and publishing rules already changed? Has everyone already gone onto the next and louder message?

December has not been a good writing month because the first week was spent in my native Ireland, where I flew across the Atlantic to visit my family and to close out the mourning year for my late father’s death.

It has not been a good writing month because my day job was really busy.

It has not been a good writing month because I was jet lagged and tired, addled, anxious and often awake at 3 a.m.

In fact, though I’ve managed to complete some essays and start a new book project, it hasn’t been a very good writing year. For most of 2012, I have been plagued by this sense that some of us are destined to be the gauche maiden aunt at this hyper hip, hyper loud and hyper mercenary party called modern writing.

Or let’s put it this way: This December, we tele-witnessed a young man gunning down 20 school children, another man pushing a stranger in front of a speeding train, and another man shooting up firefighters on Christmas.

So what the hell good are we?

And, worse than being ineffectual, aren’t we writers–aka “content providers”– part of the problem?  Our words are part of that blathery static that postures and obscures and, by extension, belittles the gut-crushing realities of life, death and loss?

Two nights ago, on the evening of December 30th, I was thinking about all of this when I suddenly remembered that line from Hemingway:  “Write the truest sentence that you know.”

Ernest Hemingway

But after the madness that has been December 2012,  I could find or write no fixed, existential truth.

At least, not about anything out there outside my office window.

But a quick Google search threw up this wonderful writing exercise from a Canadian writer who encourages us to adapt Hemingway’s advice to write some truths about ourselves.

To atone for our year of spin and cruelty and sycophancy, I tried to call up that one true thing about me.

I wrote down 20.

Some are those bare-knuckled truths that set us on the offensive or make us brace or duck for the next upper cut.  Some of my self-truths made me hold my breath. A few made me tremble. One made me cry.

The fact that I wrote 20 truths on 16 single-spaced, handwritten pages doesn’t make me super prolific or super honest.  It simply and sadly means that,  in the busy-ness and babble of life, in the gussied-up version of me that I present to the world, I had abandoned what was true.

Now, all 20 of my truths are written down. They are an excellent blueprint for 2013.

Thank you, Ernest Hemingway. I don’t like your writing. Given your macho, hard-living shtick, I probably wouldn’t have liked you.

But in a world turned mad and bad, I love your saving advice.

Posted in Uncategorized, writer's prompt, writing and publishing, Writing process, Writing prompts | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Thanks (giving) for my writing life

“It’s Thanksgiving,” he said down the payphone. His American voice sounded woken-up cranky.  “So my roommates are off work and gone home. ‘Like, Thanksgiving’s a holiday over here.”  Oh, come on, I wanted to say.  I mean, with nobody getting born or killed or risen from the dead,  just how big could this ‘holiday’ of yours really be?  

 The year was 1986. The era: way, way pre-cellphone. The setting: My native Ireland.

But only for one more month. That day, the day before Thanksgiving, 1986,  the American Embassy had issued me a temporary visa. My lucky day. How lucky? I had even found an un-vandalized payphone to call across the Atlantic to one of my expatriate  friends. Now that I had my visa, I needed a landing pad in the land of the free.

I watched the last of my money clink into the payphone slot. “Is there a message?” The man asked.

“Yes,” I said, trying to keep the panic out of my voice. “Please tell my pal Mary that I’ll ring again next week. When she’s back from … um … this … Thanksgiving.”
“Sure,” he said.
Then … Clunk.

 Standing in that phone box, I was one of the 19% of unemployed young Irish people. I was among the estimated 30% of college graduates for whom there were no suitable jobs in our own country.  And we’re not talking “dream job” or “creative job.” In fact, I didn’t even know what these terms meant.

As an unemployed person–then and now–you don’t feel like part of an unemployment statistic or a unified group.  There’s just you. There’s just you and your shame and your assumption that everyone else—especially your old college friends—all have jobs. And those friends who have moved overseas? Yup, they have jobs, too. And new jobs mean new friends—the kind of friends who invite you home to their family for secular-sounding American holidays that aren’t named for a saint or a savior.

Even more than a job, I needed a place to be—somewhere far away from that damp, November afternoon in Ireland.  Oh, yeah, as I left that phone box to walk through Dublin’s city center, I knew it in my soul: I needed a life.

But there’s one big advantage to being 24 and jobless.  Your emigration to-do list is really short.

Get yourself a temporary American visa. Check.
Empty your savings for a transatlantic airline ticket. Check.
Start saying ‘goodbye’ to your family.  Check.
Track down an expatriate friend to lend you a couch and a place to stay.

Um … well … I was working on that last one.   But I couldn’t work on it until this Thanksgiving thing was over, when I’d scrape up enough courage and spare change to call across the Atlantic again.

A month after Visa Day, I landed in JFK Airport, New York on a freezing afternoon. I had a backpack and a borrowed $200 and yes, a place to stay.

I never did get to California, at least, not to live. From New York I took a Trailways bus three hours upstate, where, as an act of mercy, a family member had set me up with his American friend. That American friend, a man I had never met before, would  pick me up and put me up until I got on my feet.

In America, I went and found me some jobs. I became a waitress, a bartender, a secretary (when we still called it that), a college administrative person, a marketing assistant, a substitute elementary school teacher (quelle disaster!) and … well, a host of other things. One year, by the time Tax Day rolled around, I submitted a whopping nine W2 forms. I went back to grad school at night. And, even with a strange accent and with substantial holes in my resume, even during the most recent U.S. recession, I managed to stay (mostly) employed.

But did I really like any of my jobs? Did any of them feed me or my vague, dreamy hope of one day being a writer? As an immigrant and as a child of working class parents, there were many, many years before I even let myself consider these questions.

My writing and editorial skills led to better and more fulfilling jobs. Almost at the same time, I began submitting my writing to literary magazines. Suddenly, the rejection slips were intermingled with a few “we’d-like-to-publish” notes. Eventually, and still with a jittery disbelief, I found myself with a dual career as a creative writer and as communications professional.

Messy but beloved kitchen counter

Yesterday morning, as I prepared for my 25th Thanksgiving in America, and before I left for my office and job,  I took my cup of coffee to the kitchen counter.

In my iPhone, I went through my last minute Thanksgiving list:

Turkey? Check.
Cranberries? Check. 
Sweet potatoes? Check.
A really good writing life?  Check. Check.  

Posted in Inspiration and infatuations, Writers resources, writing and publishing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Balancing writing with a career in publishing

Today I’m delighted to chat with Stephanie Grossman, who hails from the Hudson Valley area of New York and commutes to her publishing job in NYC. Stephanie has a bachelor’s degree in English literature and a minor in business (just in case) from Marist College.  

As well as writing (check out her work at Fiction365), Stephanie is a sales assistant in the Subsidiary Rights Department at Simon and Schuster in New York City.  

1. Stephanie, what do you write?  

I primarily write fiction, both short stories and novels (of course, I haven’t finished a novel yet). I’d like to think of my writing as literary, or at least that’s what I try for. Depending on the story, I also have a tendency to include slightly supernatural and/or experimental elements.    I do believe in writing honest, character-driven stories that can incorporate any type of plot or style, from realist to fantastical. Maybe the reason I haven’t finished a novel yet is because I spend a lot of time at my ‘other’ job—my day job.

My other commitments include pursuing a social media marketing certificate, helping my dad out with marketing for his local HVAC business, blogging on my blog (which counts as writing)…also eating, sleeping, exercising, being social…too many things that pull me in directions away from sitting down to work on my fiction writing. And yet, I think it’s important to have a life outside my writing, especially one that pays the bills.

2.  You have a long, long train commute to your job in NYC. Any tips on using the commute to keep up with your writing?

Yes, that hour and a half to two-hour commute each way, while extremely time-consuming, is actually pretty great for doing writerly things. Writing on the train isn’t exactly the most comfortable environment, but it does give me a pocket of time to be productive.

I of course use it for reading, and I keep a small notebook in my bag for  ideas, and even hand writing drafts of stories if I won’t have time (or will be way too tired) to work on at home.  While I’m writing on the train, I’m secretly wondering if the person sitting next to me is a big-time editor who will ask me what I’m working on. A writer getting discovered on a train actually happens more than you’d think.

3. What online and other writer groups do you belong to? Where can you be found on the Web?

I’ve got to say, I really love Duotrope.com. It’s an amazing resource for finding literary magazines and contests. Instead of buying the physical Writer’s Market (which needs to be updated every year), Duotrope is a free alternative that helps you find and keep track of places to send writing. I am also a part of the Yahoo group, Creative Writing Opps for weekly updates on writing venues/contests.

As for a true writing group, some friends and I have been trying to revive our writing workshop group from college, the Literary Arts Society. Right now, we have decided to primarily work together online, using a mix of Facebook, Google+, and Google Docs. We go by a nice little morbid title, SRVF, which stands for Stones and Rocks in Virginia’s Frock.

Besides Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter (now that I’ve slowly become open to Twitter), you can find me on my blog, The Anxiety of Authorship. And Goodreads, of course!

4. You’re a relatively recent college graduate. Can you talk about that transition a bit–the switch from being in formal college classes and in the company of students to being kind of alone out in the working world.

Although I do miss the college learning environment and being around inspiring friends all of the time, I don’t miss all of the homework. That has definitely been a part of the transition from college to working–I can leave my work at work (usually). Which should leave me a lot of time for writing then, right? Well, in theory. Now that I don’t have to fill all of my free time with school-work, I have definitely been able to get more writing and literary things done. At the same time, though, working full time often leaves me too tired to use my free time productively. In college, I always had work, but classes only took up about 3 hours a day at the most and I could usually go to sleep and wake up whenever I wanted. In the working world, I wake up early and don’t come home until very late. It’s been a very tiring transition.

As for being in the company of other students, college was definitely the place for socializing. At school, between my friends, English classes, being in the Literary Arts Society, co-editing my school’s academic paper, etc., there was an endless supply of friendship and writerly inspiration. In the working world, I’ve found it’s harder to make friends because everyone has so much to do in a day. And when I’m done, I just want to get on with my long commute and get home already. I have reached out to many colleagues though, whether my age or even older, especially when we connect on a writerly/readerly level (which you are more likely to find in the publishing industry).

5. Do you find a crossover between publishing (your day job) and writing?  

There is immense crossover between working in the publishing field and my own writing ambitions. I don’t think I go a day at work without thinking about myself as a writer and the ways working in publishing will help me. What I think any writer working in publishing should do is to build contacts. Put yourself out there, latch onto a really nice editor and ask to meet and discuss writing. It doesn’t have to mean you are presenting them with finished work and asking what they can do. It’s more for information, and for them to be informed that you are serious about your writing. Keep them informed periodically if you get a story published or if you’ve hit a tough spot in writing your novel. That way, even if you eventually move publishing companies, or into another industry altogether, you still have friends in publishing.

I also have to say that working in publishing makes the whole “getting published” process seem so easy, and yet so hard simultaneously. I’ve overheard editors’ conversations with their authors, and it just sounds so easy–the author throws out an idea, and BAM!–book deal. At the same time, almost all large publishing houses do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. When my department received unsolicited, or “slush” manuscripts, my boss just throws them out, or sends to an editor with a note reading “slush.” So if I can take one thing away from that, it’s to find an agent if you plan on going the traditional publishing house route (self-publishing is completely different). Agents know what they are doing–they know how to market your work to publishers/editors in a way that keeps it from entering the slush pile. Some of my friends are editorial assistants, and I just see how ridiculously busy they are. Even if you have a great manuscript, editors simply won’t have the time to read it unless an agent has handed it to them.

I’ve  been surprised to find that not many people I know in publishing are actual writers. All are avid readers, of course, but people still seem to get excited if I mention I write. Being a writer is very special.

6. Why have you chosen to hold a day job while also being a writer?

I know that many writers wish to pursue the “starving artist” route. They want their profession to be their art, and that’s it. They want to only make money from that. Isn’t that a dream job? Being able to just write all day and make money? I admire that working-horse breed, and would love to one day do something like that, but the whole living-off-your-art lifestyle just isn’t for me. I’ve also heard from many, many sources that most writers do not make their money solely from writing novels.

I think I’d go a little nuts if I was just at home every day writing for the rest of my life. It feels a bit too isolating. Where would my material come from? Where would my money come from? I think unless I become a superstar writer, I need to have the stability of a regular income. I wouldn’t say I’m being pessimistic—I still dream of my writing taking off and making all of my dreams come true—but I think right now, as a young person just getting started, I need a job. I need to establish a professional career so that writing isn’t the only thing I rely on. It’s too much pressure.

I also like that if things aren’t going right at work, I can turn to my writing and feel okay. And if things aren’t going well with writing, I can do the same by turning to work. I think it’s balancing for a writer to have other interests, another source of income, another source of inspiration.

Thank you, Stephanie.

Have you switched day-jobs during your writing career? Is it better to have a day job that’s completely divorced from writing, e.g., house painting? Or does it help to at least work within a related industry?

Posted in Author Interviews ( Q & As), books and reading, editing, writing and publishing | 1 Comment

Writers, Learn Lots from a Wind Chime

“Where did we get that new wind chime? I asked my husband.

We had just brewed some Saturday morning coffee, so my brain was still in sludge mode.

Sitting there on our back deck, he peered over his coffee mug at me. “You-bought-it,” he said.

“No I didn’t.”

 “Remember?” He said, using that sloooow,  nursing-home voice. You gave it to me as a gift? Two Christmases ago?” 

“Not that wind chime,” I said.

“You said you found it at an art show in Florida.”

“But that wind chime was twice this size. And it had those long, beautiful strips of turquoise stained glass.”

“The stained glass broke off last winter” he said.  “It’s been gone a long time.”

Finally awake, I studied our broken wind chime. For the first time since I had swaddled it in my socks and stuffed it in my airport carry-on bag, I finally saw this remaining, plainer part with its clear and deep blue sea glass.  

Writers, let’s call this the parable of the wind chime. And let’s remember the parable of the wind chime each time we are (1) So dazzled by our own eloquence that we shush that inner editing voice that cries, “Cut! Cut!” and (2) Already clicking the “send” button, even though we know that our current draft needs one more read and edit.

In business, creative, expository and journalistic writing, less is always more. If you want to find the richest, truest part of your work, be ready to trim all that extra fat.

With the extra parts gone, you can see what’s left and beautiful.

Like the remains of a broken wind chime.

Here are my three favorite editing techniques:

1. Email myself the manuscript. Then read and edit the email. This new format allows me to switch from the role of writer to reader.

2. Read the manuscript out loud. This is invaluable.

3. Save it in an online document storage site like “Dropbox,” then read it on my phone. This miniature view brings me up close and personal with the text.

What are your favorite tips or techniques for editing your own work?

Posted in editing, Writing process | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

For Labor Day: Seamus Heaney and Other Thoughts on Work and Writing

I wrote this exactly a year ago, never thinking that it would become one of many international elegies  for a great poet and wit and humanitarian.

Séamus Heaney’s poem, “Digging” has always been my favorite piece of literature about work.

Have a listen to Heaney reading from his poem, “Digging.”

Or read the printed version (below).

Random Thoughts on Poetry, Writing and Labor

As an undergraduate in Dublin, I was lucky enough to have Seamus Heaney as my professor and the chair of our English Department. As I sit here now, today, in America, I can shut my eyes and hear him reading to us in that second-floor classroom, to a rag-tag group of 18-year-old undergrads who were too young and too immature to appreciate what we were really hearing.

Years later, just before he became a Nobel laureate, I read an interview with Heaney in some Irish magazine in which he spoke briefly about his then-dual life as a working professor and as one of the world’s most esteemed poets. In the interview, I loved the part where he stated that he always considered it his first duty to earn a living and provide for his family.

My father also dug his share of potatoes and turf and God knows what else. Above all else, my father believed in paying his way, in working hard.

In 2011, a year before Dad died, he told me that he was most proud of having produced an equally hard-working family.

Today, on Labor Day, I am proud to be the kind of hard worker who could make my father proud.

+++++++++

Séamus Heaney  (1939-)

Digging

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

– from Death of a Naturalist (1966)

Posted in books and reading, Inspiration and infatuations, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Reading Life: Thank You

Last week, I contributed to this wonderful blog, The Books They Gave Me, in which readers get to “reflect on the books given to us by loved ones.”

For my contribution, I decided to write about my first ever gift of a children’s book by the hugely popular British author, Enid Blyton.  In 1970, a beloved aunt gave me the 1966 edition of “The Hollow Tree House.” I’m sure my aunt didn’t know it then, but her gift of a paperback children’s novel started a lifelong love of reading–and writing.

In terms of time input and multiple drafts, the “Books They Gave Me” post was an absolute beast.  This mini essay took several rounds of scribbled bedside notes and balled-up yuck drafts.  In the end, I found myself keeping it short, sweet and to the point.

Why was this piece more difficult to write than, say, a 3,000-word personal essay or a 1,500-word feature?

In effect, I was penning a long overdue thank-you note not just for a gift, but for a life.

Over 42 years ago, I finished that children’s novel and looked around for another.  I craved trips to the town library. In between our trips to town, I re-read the books I had previously read.

After that first book, there was no turning away, no defection from this new and thrilling world, this universe of words and people and places and sensibilities that were a million miles away from my childhood home and our small farm in south Mayo in the west of Ireland.

I read my way through a rural, dreamy childhood. I read my way through the turbulent teens. I’ve read on planes and trains. I’ve read in bed.   I’ve read my way up to and through a hospital surgical procedure. I read in the bathroom–even the stinky public ones.  I’ve read through broken romances and … more broken romances (Men? Who needed ’em anyway?).  I read after my cat died. I read in the waiting rooms of the Irish hospitals where my late parents spent their final days.

Reading calms me. Reading thrills me. Reading is how I understand the world around me and the places I’ve been and never will be.  Reading is how I seek to understand myself.  Reading tells me what to believe, what to say.  Reading begets my public arguments and my private joys.

Across two continents, multiple jobs, two college degrees, 17 house moves, 5 cats and many, many different dress sizes, books have been the constant–the constant happy.

How could we ever adequately thank someone for such a gift?

What are your early reading memories? Feel free to share in the comments (below).

Posted in books and reading, Inspiration and infatuations, Uncategorized, writer's prompt | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

The Next Big Thing: Blog Hop on Writers’ Work in Progress

Week 8: The Next Big Thing: Work in Progress

Thank you to Donna at Girl Who Reads who invited me to join this blog hop, in which writers dish a little on our current work in progress. Thanks, too, to the other scribes (see list at end of post) who have decided to post next week. Check out their works in progress  on August 22.

What is the working title of your book?

It’s a novel set in greater Boston–with small parts of it in Ireland. I had called an earlier version, “Waverly Farms,” but the plot has changed considerably since then, so I don’t really have a working title yet. But I’m intrigued by my own unfolding story–and that’s always a good sign.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

The  creative itch  for this book can be traced back to my 10-year bug to write about wealth and its effects on people, and just how much will someone sacrifice or compromise themselves to hold onto wealth and what money can buy.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s a YA crossover novel. This is my first time really dabbling in this genre. But in my 2nd novel, I enjoyed creating the teenage character very much, and found that I really got inside of her head. I’ve also completed a very layered, sassy short story with a 14-year-old character. So … I’m building on these and trying a full-length novel with a 16-year-old character.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Gee, I’m not good with actors at all. But my teenage character, Drey, would have to be played by someone fairly complex, with the ability to master or balance a  cheeky worldliness with an inner sense of injury. For the male main character, Nathaniel, I think Jeremy Irons would be perfect.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A 16-year-old girl is forced to give up everything when her family declares bankruptcy, files for divorce and her mother emigrates to, and disappears in, America.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Either an agency or an independent literary press.   I don’t self-publish fiction.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I haven’t completed the first draft yet.  But between the day job and my other shorter projects, I’m working on it.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Not sure.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

As an expatriate who left Ireland 25 years ago, I have watched from afar as the country underwent a huge economic boom and crash.   Recent financial articles have highlighted the prodigal greed and unfettered borrowing and development that contributed to or fueled Ireland’s current economic crisis.  So I imagined this spoiled teenage character whose family suddenly loses all of its wealth, and the mother and daughter are forced to emigrate.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Despite the context above, the novel is not a sociological study. Instead, it’s part mystery, part psychological thriller and an unusual blend of two main characters: A teenage girl and a 60-something Brahmin New England man. The man is really quite crazy.

Next up: August 29: Check these 5 writers’ blogs or websites to hear and see what they’re working on:

Carolyn Roy Bornstein

Daniela Ginta

Lori Grace

Jennifer Karin

Ted Mitchell

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Saturday snapshot – Don’t You Love Free Speech?

I love this idea. Alyce at Home with Books hosts a Saturday Snapshot, in which you can post a beloved picture taken by yourself, a friend or family member (not randomly found on the Web). Then, simply visit Alyce at Home with Books and post a link there to your photo.

Last week, I drove to one of our work sites (I work for a healthcare agency) and parked the car and … there was this sign in the back garden of an apartment house.

 

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Maeve Binchy: Lessons for All Writers

This week, the news spread via the international media and the Internet that popular writer Maeve Binchy has died after a short illness. Rest in peace, Maeve. And thank you for all those loveable and highly readable  stories and books.

I didn’t know Maeve Binchy–at least not personally.

Once, she was the judge of a short-story contest in which my entry made second place. So I can guess she had good taste, yes? Also, I once flew back home from Ireland to Boston while sitting next to an off-duty airline stewardess. Needless to say, we got chatting. And needless to say, I got her to spill about who she’s waited on and what they’re like.

She said Maeve Binchy was a joy.

My first and best memory of this iconic Irish writer was an interview on a Saturday-night T.V. show in Ireland.  I couldn’t have been more than 17 or 18 (was I 20?) at the time, and Maeve  Binchy was a comparitively neophyte published writer.

From that T.V appearance, I remember two things:

1. She assured the interviewer that writing was really like sitting in a pub and just telling someone a story. It was that exciting and that uncomplicated.

2. I remember her extraordinary warmth and grace–and for some reason, this came as a shock.

Can You Be Quotable, Famous and Nice?

Until Maeve, our iconic Irish writers–our Joyces, our Becketts our Kavanaghs et al–had been … well … mostly male. And, gender aside, our national writers had been quotable, talented and erudite–yes-but what had they taught us about being or playing nice? About combining  grace with literary fame?

So this is what I remember most about Maeve Binchy. Not her books, not her plots, not her characters, not her books-turned-feature films or astonishing literary output. But her grace.

Take a look at this week’s  newspaper tributes to Maeve Biinchy’s life and death, and it’s clear that, beyond the works and awards, her grace and charm didn’t go unnoticed.  The term “popular” described way more than her 40-million in worldwide book sales. These good manners, this altruistic consideration of others–her readers, the airline worker, the T.V. interviewer. These are the hallmarks, the legacy of a truly “good writer.”

And of course, this leads us to ask: What if she’d been just as successful but also one of those ice-queen, prima donna writers?  This week, would we flood the Internet and media with our memories and our heartfelt tributes?

No. Or if we did, we would just write the usual “life and work” tributes. We would write and speak about her in that distanced, awe-struck way in which we pay tribute to other impressive but inanimate constructs like .. oh … say … the pyramids of Egypt or the Taj Mahal or Donald Trump.

To me, the way in which Maeve Binchy conducted herself on-screen, in life, on air or in the air is just as important–actually more so–than her status as a bestselling woman writer.

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Advice for New Writers and .. Much More

This week, I was delighted to be interviewed by Joe Petchonka at his vibrant writers’ site, Petchonka.com.

 I love writer-interviews–and from both sides of the table. As the interviewee, we can surprise ourselves with what we think and know. Of course it helps when the blogger or radio host or journalist knows to ask the most provocative questions. 

As the interviewer, it’s a legitimate opportunity to be nosey about other writers’ creative processes. 

Either way, from either side of the table, it’s always a learning opportunity.

Check out the interview here

Anything you disagree with? Feel free to comment.

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Should You Come Out (as a writer) at Work?

It’s happened again.

This morning, my Google Alert told me that my name had been mentioned somewhere out there in the cyber galaxy.

Was it a glowing online review? Some writer blogger mentioning or  (or damning–who knows?) my book for writers? Some agent who had come upon my last novel and now, she or he had a question or a quibble or a hot writers’ advance for the next book?

It was none of these.

Instead, it was a press release that I posted at work as part of my job as a communications director for a non-profit here in Massachusetts.

Dang. It’s not that I’m disappointed that the search engines are picking up my work-generated press releases, but I don’t like this public link between my paid work (aka, the day job) and my life as a creative writer.

I hate when that happens. In fact, I do everything I can to not have that happen, to keep  my day job and my writing life separate.  So I never stand in the lunch room blathering about last night’s rough draft. Or I never announce a new publication.

I don’t invite my colleagues to any of my public readings or panel discussions.

I never bring one of my books to work, and I never, ever mention my workplace on Twitter or on my author’s Facebook page. Sometimes, when and if a colleague reads a piece of mine or sees my name in the local newspaper (the arts, not the business section), I grow suddenly bashful and embarrassed, as if I’ve been caught out in a secret.

Why?

Mostly, I like to honor the requirements and ethics of my professional life and workplace. I feel grateful to have a job I like with colleagues I respect.  But then, I don’t write anything salacious or pornographic or outrageous. I don’t write on the job.  So what’s the harm in sharing my life with those people with whom I wait in line for the coffee machine?  Just as they tell me about their kids and their kids’ birthday parties, why can’t I share my extra-curricular life?

Mostly, I want my colleagues to see me as fitting and fulfilling the role I’m paid for. So I hesitate to introduce another variable of myself, to charge them with seeing me in another and separate light.

And make no mistake: They are separate. The worker me and the writer me are very different. Especially on those self-effacing and writer-blocked days, I like the worker me better. It’s a far more confident and competent version.  It’s a version that gets things done.

But mostly, I think I keep things separate because, even when I’m writing fiction, some part of that manuscript will reveal my past and my innermost thoughts and sensibilities.

Do I really want my colleagues to know that much about me?

How do you manage it? Really, I’d love to know. Do you allow colleagues or business associates to share in the joys and challenges of your writing?

Do you share rough drafts with your family or life partner or best friend?

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Project Management for Busy Writers

Chicago-area writer Clare O’Donohue has published six novels, while also working  as a  freelance TV producer. 

 Her most recent book, LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE, was released earlier this month.  LWP is the second in O’Donohue’s Kate Conway mystery series.

 Clare is also the author of the Someday Quilts Mystery Series.

How does she write six novels (count ’em–six!) and balance a day job? According to Clare, there’s no real mystery to getting it all done. It’s all about managing the project’s component parts. 

In my latest novel, LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE, Kate Conway, a freelance television producer,  is working on two shows at the same time. Someone recently asked me if these fictional overlapping shows reflected real life, or if they were just creative embellishment on my part.

Kate and I share a profession. I’m a TV producer and writer, working mainly on the informational program side of TV (shows on A&E, History Channel, HGTV, truTV…) Like Kate, I’m freelance, and right now I’m working on three television shows at the same time, and yes, my head’s about to explode.

As stressful as it is, it’s the nature of the beast for any freelancer – sometimes there’s too much work, and sometimes too little. When people call and ask if you’re available, you say yes, and then find a way to fit the project in.

That’s usually okay. Being a TV producer is fun. I meet people from all walks of life from killers to congressman, actors, athletes, business owners and orphans. But it is also exhausting. There are constant deadlines and lots of demands, and I always have to learn something new for whatever assignment I’ve taken on.

And have I mentioned that it’s constant feast or famine? I have? It bears repeating.

Somehow the craziness has been a blessing when I write a novel. And not just because my work as a producer was the inspiration for Kate. Being a good producer requires serious time management skills. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work, questions, phone calls and emails. One day I went to get my teeth cleaned, and when I walked out of the dentist’s office I had a hundred new emails. A hundred urgent requests for information that wasn’t particularly urgent or even necessary, but required my attention to make my clients happy. I sat in my car and answered them, both grateful and annoyed that the invention of the smart phone made that possible.

When I’m confronted with a huge task like producing a show – or writing a novel – I realize I follow a few simple steps every time I take a breath. I make sure I’m as calm as possible. I get rid of annoyances – dealing with the little things to get them off my plate. Then, I look at the big project and choose which part I’ll work on first. I set an amount of time I’m going to work before taking a break.  And then, as hard as it is, I ignore everything else and focus myself completely on that task. There is nothing quite so overwhelming as looking at the big picture. So I try hard to stay on the small one until I can check a task off my list, then I re-assess, move on, and occasionally have some chocolate. I’m a strong believer in the reward system, especially when it involves chocolate.

In TV the “what’s first” task isn’t always the same thing, but in writing novels it is – Chapter One. I figured this out a few years back when I wrote my first novel.

I didn’t have an agent, didn’t really know anything about publishing and was just jumping in with a lot of dreams and just enough stupidity to keep me from realizing how much the odds were stacked against me. (Not knowing you can’t do something is often the very reason you succeed.) Anyway, my sister kept talking about how she could totally see it on a bookshelf someday, that she knew it would get published. Lovely supportive stuff that only made me feel more anxious. It made the project seem big and important… and beyond my abilities. So I began saying, “I’m in chapter three. That’s all I care about – Chapter 3.” I would work on chapter three, and when it was written and my sister started talking about book tours and best seller lists, I would say, “I’m in Chapter 4…”

In fact, “staying in the chapter I’m writing” is now more than just about writing. I realize sometimes when something else in my life starts to get bigger than I can handle, I break it down into small chunks. aka chapters. It’s more manageable. Planning a vacation, dealing with a personal problem, trying to lose that annoying ten pounds… I break it down into little pieces until it’s manageable and easy to achieve. And I take another page out of my producer handbook, and set a time that I’m going to work on something, or worry about something, before taking a break.

I’ve now written six novels, and I’m working on number seven. When people ask me how I do it, I say I produce a book the way I do a television show. I stay calm, stay focused, choose a small task and stick with it. And in the end, there’s chocolate.

What skills do you share between your day job and your writing life?

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Mother’s Day Gone Bad: How We Love the “Mommie Dearest” Stories

In real life or fiction, the word “mother” carries all kinds of expectations–probably more so than “father.”  For example, come Father’s Day, our chain drugstores will be full of greeting cards that tease and treat our fathers like hapless, goofy golf-players. But this season’s crop of Mother’s Day cards?  Yup! Now there’s one giant old love-fest.

In his memoir, Angela’s Ashes, the late Frank McCourt wrote that “the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood.”

Is it the same for mothers—as in, the fictionalized Mommie Dearest character? Is the nurturing, lovvy-huggy mother “hardly worth your while?” And by extension, is the profane or violent mother worthy of a book or movie?

Yes.

I’m basing this on all those Mommie Dearest characters, real and imagined, past and present, on page and screen. Closer to home, I’m basing it on a year’s worth of reader reactions to my 2011 novel, Dance Lessons.

A little background:  Although it’s my 2nd published novel, D.L. is my first book published in the U.S. of A.  After 25 years of living in America, and after publishing lots of Irish-based short stories, this novel was supposed to be my grand attempt at writing the American sensibility.

So I created Ellen Boisvert, a 39-year-old American widow. A year after her husband’s death, Ellen discovers that her Irish-immigrant husband was not, after all, an orphan. Instead, his 84-year-old mother Jo is alive and still working the family farm in Ireland. So Ellen sets off to find the truth about his family and comes face-to-face with the realities of her late-husband’s childhood and their troubled, transatlantic marriage.

In my author’s mind, Ellen would be the character that readers would talk about.

And they did–sort of.

But from book clubs to public presentations to blog posts,  far more readers asked and argued about Jo, the 84-year-old Irish mother-in-law incarnate.

Over platters of shrimp and trays of lemon squares, my readers hated Jo. They forgave her. They defended or damned her.  They asked me how a nice girl like me could pen such a horrible mother.

One critic wrote about Jo’s “Titanic rage.” Another kind and careful reader wrote, “As a reader, I never thought you could make me like someone who beats her own child, but somehow you do.” (I’m paraphrasing.)

From the greeting card stores to the advertisers’ billboards, Mothers are love.  Mothers stop in the street to coo at a stranger’s baby. Mothers will bail you out of jail and declare that, bank robberies/child molestation/gang membership/white-collar embezzlement aside, they still love their own child.

So what happens when this is not so? What happens when the instigator, the very source of our life’s problems and pain is the mother?

What happens?

In real life, we get a whole host of social, emotional and psychological afflictions. More often than not, they’re the kind of inter-generational afflictions that get passed on down from one mean mama to her daughter, the heiress apparent to this same title.  In this Mendel’s laboratory of congenital meanness, I believe that it takes a miracle, or it takes one, really, really strong mama to swear upon her newborn’s head and declare: “No, baby. Not me.”

But in fiction-land, the mean mama becomes the ultimate ‘whodunnit,’  the ready-made conflict between what’s supposed to be and what actually is.   “What happened to the maternal instinct?” we ask. “What went wrong here?”

Voila! The fictional plot. Ditto for memoirs like Augusten Burrough’s Running with Scissors. In such true-life stories, the monster-mommie becomes the narrative arc that drives the entire non-fiction plot.

In her novel, The Light of Evening, Irish author Edna O’Brien wrote: “Such is the wrath of the mothers, such is the cry of the mothers, such is the lamentation of the mothers, on and on until the last day, the last bluish tinge, the pismires, the gloaming, and the dying dust.”

So in Dance Lessons, why did I make this Irish mother character so evil?

Truthfully, Jo Dowd, this “wrath of mothers” came striding onto the page all by herself. She emerged fully formed as the resentful and lonely woman that she is. And yes, cruel. The cruel, abusive mother.

The monster mother that gets readers talking.

________________________

Who’s your favorite mother character from books or movies, vintage or contemporary? Do we expect too much from the maternal figure?

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Saturday Snapshot – County Mayo, Ireland

I love this idea. Alyce at Home with Books hosts a Saturday Snapshot, in which you can post a beloved picture taken by yourself, a friend or family member (not randomly found on the Web). Then, simply visit Alyce at Home with Books and post a link there to your photo.

Winter on Mulranny Beach, County Mayo, Ireland.

I took this on the day after my brother’s wedding there two years ago.  I’m from County Mayo, but when we were kids, the weather was rarely nice enough to go to the beach. But now I’m a grown up and a returning expat. So I go.  Just ‘cos I can.

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What I Learned On My Writer’s Vacation

Vacations used to make me feel guilty.

And by “vacation,” I don’t mean my twice or three-times-a-year trips to a writers retreat. Yes, those trips are super relaxing, but only after the day’s writing gets done.  No, I’m talking about those sun, sea and sand trips in which your biggest worry du jour is what to eat for dinner.

Before going back to a regular day job, every vacation was unpaid. So in addition to the travel and accommodation costs, there was all that non-billable time. Back then, I  tried to write every morning and then support myself with a hodge podge of freelancing and teaching gigs.  So from a cost point of view, I felt like I had never really earned a real vakay.

My husband needed and looked forward to vakay.  But then, he kept regular hours and he had a 401(k), while I had … well, I had my attic writing room and my cat and all that time in which to write profound and wonderful things while never having to get out of my p.j.’s  So back then, wasn’t I on a kind of permanent vacation?

I wasn’t.

Shame on me.  I squandered half of that creative time fretting over paying the bills.  I took on some editorial and other projects that neither paid the bills nor advanced or enhanced my own personal writer-goals. In retrospect, this was not a good idea.

So even when we did sneak off on a couple’s trip, I felt like I was stealing even more free and costly time.  I felt like I didn’t deserve it.

This year, after a year of bereavements (his Mum; my Dad) and transatlantic flights and a kitchen makeover (let’s not even go there),  my sweetie and I booked ourselves some (paid) time off from work and rented a beach-front apartment for two.

On a chill New England afternoon, we sat on a stationary airplane and flicked through the in-flight magazine while the maintenance crew de-iced our plane.

But at last we were airborne and headed for warm sunshine and hot sands and ruby-red sunsets.

For 12 blissful days, we ate late breakfasts and went for long walks and sat on the beach with our paperbacks.

Then, on Day 3, here came that old, familiar guilt.  I had nine days left–nine days with no alarm clock and no day job. In other words, nine perfectly good writing days.

Determined to enjoy a digital-free vacation, I had left my laptop at home.

So I went to a store and bought myself an old-fashioned composition notebook. With its wide-lined pages and its hard-back cover, my notebook was perfect for poolside writing.

Morning coffee. Ocean breezes. The scratch of my pen on paper. This plein-air writing retreat couldn’t have been better if I’d planned it this way from the start.

Here’s what I learned on my writer’s vacation:

1. The organic approach:  When I work on my PC or laptop, I try to write Scene 1 + Scene 2, which lead me to Scene 3.  But poolside, I wrote beyond and behind the proposed plot line of my novel-in-progress. I scribbled in the margins. I wrote sudden scenes.  By letting myself color outside the lines, the book-in-progress and my 16-year-old character began to reveal themselves.

2. Shush the inner critic: Maybe it’s the sun. Maybe it’s the palm trees. Maybe it’s the long morning power-walks along the ocean.   Whatever it is, being on vacation makes me feel younger and brighter and more positive.  And that means shutting off the inner critic.   (By the way, for a wonderful essay on the “inner-critic” issue, check out this entry at  Books By Women.)

3. There really are no short cuts:  Turns out, I needed to simply let myself write.  I learned that,  when I’m back home and back at my laptop, I’m often too scared to go mad.  Why? Because in my regular, alarm-clock life, I delude myself that I can and should tame the creative beast. That I can and should whip it into shape and force it forward in a linear trajectory. Big note to self: There are no short cuts. Those rushed, premature parts end up needing a re-do anyway.

Now, wouldn’t you think I’d have learned that from watching the kitchen makeover crew?

How do you manage vacations with family or friends? Do you throw yourself 100% into the communal fun, or can you steal some private writing time?   

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An Interview with Erika Dreifus, Author, Editor and Reviewer

Today I’m delighted to welcome Erika Dreifus, a New York City author whose recent short story collection, Quiet Americans  (Last Light Studio),  is a 2012 Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title for outstanding Jewish literature. 

Erika lives in New York City, where she holds a full-time, writing-intensive administrative job at The City University of New York.  A contributing editor for The Writer magazine and for Fiction Writers Review, Erika publishes The Practicing Writer, a free monthly newsletter for poets, fictionists, and writers of creative nonfiction. Her website is a rich and inviting resource for writers.

1. Erika, you switched from the freelancing/adjuncting route (as did I) to a Monday – Friday, 9-5 gig. For many writers, adjuncting and/or freelancing seem to be the default day jobs. Why the switch?

1A.  First, Aine, I just want to thank you for inviting me to your blog and for asking such wonderful questions.

After completing my MFA, I’d hoped to obtain a tenure-track college or university position teaching creative writing. I didn’t appreciate at the time how difficult it would be to get hired for that kind of job without having at least one published book to my credit. Freelancing and adjuncting helped support me while I pursued that elusive publishing goal.

But after a few years without a book deal, the instability of life as a freelancer and adjunct began to be too much. Plus, I was contemplating a move from the Boston area to New York, and I knew that if it had been hard to manage as a freelancer/adjunct in Boston, it would likely be even more difficult to do so in New York. It just seemed to be time to try something else—something with the stability (and health insurance!) of a Monday-Friday, 9-5 office job.

2.  In terms of your writing life, do you find one type of work setting (adjuncting) better or worse than the other (9-5).

2A.  I’m not sure I have a clear perspective on this right now. I have definitely grown as a writer since returning to a 9-5 job in ways I didn’t anticipate back when I was contemplating the move. For instance, I wasn’t writing poetry at all in my freelancing/adjuncting days. But that’s related to something else I’ve noticed: I seem to find it more difficult now to become immersed in longer-form projects. Because so much of my writing occurs in short bursts of time, I seem to be writing in shorter forms much more than I did in the past. The thoughts and images I want to write about are somehow more intense and urgent, and they seem to find expression best in compressed forms.

3.  I am excited to read that you write fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Are there times when you are more drawn to one genre than the other? Do certain topics lend themselves to certain genres for you?

3A.  Well, in a sense, this is tied to what I mentioned just above. But it’s interesting to me how certain topics seem to recur regardless of the genre. For instance, the experiences of my paternal grandparents—German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s—and my perceptions of this family legacy have made their way into my short stories, poems, and essays.

4.  Tell us some more about your short fiction collection, Quiet Americans. I’d love to hear about the joys and challenges of making single stories into a complete collection.  We can assume that it’s not just a random placement of stories within the ms.? And how do you and the publisher decide which stories get to make the final cut for the collection?

4A.  The stories are grounded in the theme that I’ve just mentioned—the experiences of German-Jewish refugees in the United States and their descendants. As for the processes of selecting and sequencing the stories: All of that unfolded over time.

My case may be a little different, because my publisher initially expressed interest in my work as a collection. That is to say, he was aware that I had published a number of stories in literary journals and magazines, and he knew from his own experience how difficult it can be to get a collection published. He wondered if I had a collection already prepared that he might consider taking on. And since I had already spent so many years shaping (and re-shaping) the collection, and benefited from the advice of a couple of agents who’d been interested in it, the collection already had a structure and logic that my publisher appreciated. He was (and remains!) wonderfully supportive.

5. I think my readers would also love to hear about your publishing process. In this changing publishing environment, can you speak to the advantages (or not) of the independent, literary press?

5A. Quiet Americans owns its existence as a published collection to this new environment and to the possibilities now afforded to independent, literary presses. No question. So that is one significant advantage!

Obviously, it would be nice if every independent publisher had the resources and contacts of the larger houses. It would simply be easier to reach readers that way. But again, independent presses are now an increasingly viable option and ensuring that additional works of quality have a fighting chance in the literary marketplace. I see so much benefit in that, for authors and for readers.

6. What are your top 3 tips for transitioning or balancing between your day job and your writing life?

6A. Well, I’m frankly more interested in other people’s tips! But, for what they’re worth, here are mine:

  • Get up early! Seriously, there are only so many hours in the day. I always feel better if I’ve managed to get some writing done before I leave for the day job.
  • Get some exercise. After spending 40 hours each week at one desk, it isn’t always easy to settle in to start working at another one. Even a quick walk around the neighborhood will help. I also find that exercise helps “jog” my mind; it’s not uncommon for me to solve a writing problem or come up with a new idea while I’m walking or running.
  • Keep reading. Reading helps us stay inspired and keeps us learning. Even if you can squeeze in only a few pages before bed, make sure you get a daily dose of reading.

Thank you, Erika, for your thoughtful answers.

What about you, gentle reader (and writer)? Have you switched between adjunct teaching, freelancing or office-based positions? What blends or blended best with your creative writing life? 

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On Valentine’s and Beyond: How to Woo (and love) a Writer

10 Ways to Woo (and love) a Writer

1.       Forgive our occasional social gaffes, like when we  gaze off mid-dinner and mid-sentence to let that bistro meal grow cold. We’re not ignoring you. Honest.  We’re writing. Or eavesdropping.  Same thing.

2.       When we’re doing a reading or speaking on a book panel, we don’t invite you along for the same reason that you don’t invite us to tag along to your office, construction site or factory floor. For a working writer, all public appearances are part of the job. And for that event, we’re focused on doing a good job, not being an attentive lover, mate or spouse.

3.       No matter how long we’ve been living/sleeping together,  we will never, ever share the same email.

4.       Feed us. It’s the way to a writer’s heart.

5.       Whatever your childhood experiences, open up to us. You see, the very act of writing helps us to know the human spirit. And that makes us good friends and loyal, empathetic partners.  So cry on our writers’ shoulders. We can take it.

6.       Somewhere I’ve read, “A clean house is a sign of a wasted life.”  So if you insist on a spotless  house,   a writer may  not be the best love-choice for you.

7.       Never, ever recycle that “useless looking scrap of paper on the dining room table.” NEVER.

8.       When we wake up next to you and mutter, “I was dreaming about a pink dragon with an extra long tail who was at this party with my very first boyfriend from secondary school?” That’s about a pink dragon with an extra long tail.  Not about you. And not about any of our ex’s.

9.       Let us love you back.  The days of the hedonistic  or the scatter-brained writers are gone. Or should be. As well being a writer,  we have a duty to love, honor, protect and contribute to our relationships and our household finances.

10.   We will not always—if ever—show you our first drafts. See item 2.

Send along your suggestions for happy relationships–and a happy writing life. 

Thanks to BooksbyWomen, the wonderful online magazine for women writers, where this appeared first. 

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Working Time and Writing Time. What’s In-Between?

“Tuesday is the day before hump day. Thursday is one day after hump day. Except Friday is WOOOH!!! FREEDOM!!! Day, Saturday is Mostly Hungover day, and Sunday is PreDoom day.”

I’m voting for a change in the calendar. If there can be “hump day” and TGI Friday and “doomday,” and “pre-doomday,” then why not a catchy name for that day or afternoon or morning that comes after work but before writing?

I don’t know about you, but I never drive away from my office ready to dive into my current work in progress.  In fact, there are weeks when the hardest part of writing is the transition from worker-brain to writer-brain.

I love my job as a communications director for a busy non-profit. I feel fortunate to work 32 hours per week, usually Tuesday through Friday.  Oh yes, I hate when that dang alarm clock rings.   And I despise the pre-work choreography–you know, the cereal-coffee-shower-select-an-outfit routine. I’m never awake enough to get it right first time.

But once I get the matching socks on, once I actually get to work, the day flies by and I enjoy my colleagues and my daily tasks.   I enjoy it all the more because I know that, come Friday evening, I have three whole days of writing time.

Or do I?

The older I get, the more transition time I need.   I need a metaphorical green room in which I can rest up and make that switch from worker (public) me to writer (private) me.

Writer and worker. They are quite different people. At work, I think my colleagues would say that I’m chatty and upbeat (on good days), deliberate but efficient at getting things done. But holed up in my writer’s den, I’m much, much more organic (scattered?).  I’m more given to self-flagellation and artistic despair. I’m quiet and solitary. And, even when I’m writing (or trying to write) witty, I’m often serious and dark.

So once the working week is done, how to do that old switcher-oo?  How to put all that efficiency and teamwork and left-brain-ness into cold storage until the alarm goes off and it’s time for the matching socks again? How do we shush the workplace water-cooler chat to hear, instead, our own unique writing voices?

The switch isn’t easy. Not for me. In fact, some weeks are so busy, so all-consuming that I need a down day.

Down day? Um … No. Hate that name. Hate its connotations (down = feeling down = downward slide = getting down on yourself).

Listen, whatever we’re going to name this writer-in-transition time, this set of hours and mental space betwen work and writing, we can start by making that time more productive, restorative, more writer-ready.

Here are 5 strategies that work for me: 

1. Exercise –  You’ve had enough desk surfing. After work, get out there and walk or run or go to the gym.

2. Small assignments – Before you set out on that walk or run, stuff a work in progress in your backpack. After your workout, grab a tea and spend an hour reading and editing. It’s just an hour. You’re just reading. But this gets you back into writer-you.

3. Do something just for you  — A yoga class, a massage, a visit to you local art gallery, lunch with your kids or partner or a good friend. A deliberate spate of self-nurturing helps us to feel like our day jobs neither own nor define us.

4. Write in your journal. Writing about your work week gets it out of your system. Oh, and don’t forget to list of all the wonderful things you accomplished this week.

5.  Read–A poem, a novel, an article on writing, a personal essay that inspires or informs.  Reading something we love is a great way to say, “Goodbye work. Hello me.”

Whether it’s an hour or a day or an afternoon, how do you transition from day-job you to writer you? And writers, what should we name this transition time?

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Writers: Oh, We of Little Faith

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The nuns at my convent secondary school said I’d lost it.

Faith, that is. I had lost my faith.

I only believed in things that could be proven in a science lab or in my math or grammar notebooks (We had paper notebooks back then; this all happened shortly after the sinking of the Lusitania.)

Episode 1: My first public crisis of faith went like this: There we were, us convent girls, all wearing our navy-blue uniforms and all pretending to listen to Sister S.’s latest speech on our “one, true faith.”  I was 14. I politely interrupted to opine that, if Sister’s hypothesis were true, then the entire faith/formal religion thing amounted to a rigged (and therefore illegal) horse race in which every bettor had an insider’s tip for the favorite.

“But it’s not, is it, Sister?” I said. “The other faiths (protestants, et al) are all backing their own horses, so we’re all in a punter’s race.”

Sister S. argued back.

I counter-argued and trotted (ouch! sorry!) out more horse-racing analogies to make this woman see.

She sputtered and spat and fought back tears. She said she would pray for me.

(Psst! If your eyes are glazing over already, or if you’ve gone back to reading your daily racing pages, then skip this next episode of “Convent Kid Goes to Hell.” I’ll pray for you).

Episode 2: Two years later, we were all studying for our final exams and (hopefully) university. One day, Sister G., a younger nun, announced that advanced biology and French grammar and mathematical theorems were all fine for the mind, but we also needed to feed our young souls.

So Sister G. arrived with this box of religious books. They had book jackets with celestial sunrises and petrified martyrs gazing sky-ward. We could pick what we wanted, so of course I chose an extra big edition of the four gospels because it was hefty enough to camouflage my own latest creed: a steamy paperback novel.

Pant. Swoon. Now, this was the best religion class yet.

Until that day when Sister G. hauled me up in front of the class and held up my clandestine paperback filth as Exhibit A of what happens to girls who lose their faith.   I was, she said, “rapidly heading toward atheism.”  So she said she’d pray for me, too.

Between then and now,  I’ve been a student and a teacher and a waitress and a dishwasher and a secretary and a professor and an editor.

Oh, and I moved across the sea to America, where my faith never returned. My faith done gone.

In America, I don’t leave home without my GPS.  Every morning before work, I check my bag for my wallet, my phone, my lunch and water bottle. I often check twice.

At work I need written assurances of projected finish dates and what the project will look like.  I would never do one of those executive retreat thing-ys where you pitch yourself off a mountain ledge in the belief that your colleague will catch you.

Not me.

I only believe in what I see. In what I’ve been promised or contracted or what I can behold.

But then …

Just before Christmas 2011, I started my third novel. So far, it’s a crossover novel with a young adult main character but some fairly adult themes.  Beyond the main characters and the initial set-up, I have no clue what will actually happen. And worse, I cannot cast my mind forward 300 pages to envision a page that pronounces, “THE END.”

As writers, are there ever any promises?  Is there ever a GPS or Godly voice announcing, “Destination on the right.” Heck, most of us don’t know where our story will end or if it will end or if this current draft will be the draft or if it will all just end up as kindling or kitty litter.

Writing is the ultimate test of personal faith. It presents many crisis of faith, like when the back-story becomes the front story. Like when the main character pouts and stalls and regresses to baby talk again. Like when the phone rings. The sink is full of dishes. Like when work is so busy you just about keep it all together.

Faith is damn hard.  And yet, to not believe, to not have faith is to not write.  It’s to declare yourself as a permanent non-runner in every race.

And hell, we can’t do that.

Today I abandoned my writing to take a long walk. On my walk, I stopped to  listen to the wind in the marsh grasses and how the incoming tide makes the ice snap and pop.   As I watched the winter sky out over Plum Island, I needed to believe.

So I kept walking and thinking and kept asking that little brat-character o’ mine to reveal her true self.

She hasn’t. Yet.

But she will.

Do women lose their writer’s faith more easily than men? Or is it about equal between the genders?  How do you keep believing in yourself and your project?

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Abraham Verghese: Well Said, Sir

First, let me apologize for my long absence and dearth of new posts. I have been in Ireland (twice) for a family emergency and bereavement (my Dad). As much as I love and feel comfortable in the blogosphere, I feel equally sure that this format would never do justice to my late father’s industry, resilience, honesty and humor. So I will not write about his death or his legacy here.

Speaking of resilience, I retuned to the U.S. to find this article by Abraham Verghese (“Cutting for Stone”) in the Washington Post  My  fellow author, Carolyn Bornstein sent it to me. Thank you.

Abraham Verghese, author of ‘Cutting for Stone,’ describes his writing life

I write by stealing time. The hours in the day have never felt as if they belonged to me. The greatest number has belonged to my day job as a physician and professor of medicine — eight to 12 hours, and even more in the early days. Lest it sound as if I resent my day job, I have to say that my day job is the reason I write, and it has been the best thing for me as a writer. Read the complete article here. 

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Writing Mystery Fiction with Edith Maxwell

Is there a perfect place in which to set your  mystery novels?  If so, Ipswich, Massachusetts has got to be in the top five of  fictional locations.  Ipswich has historic homes. It’s got salt marshes. It’s got the best beach in greater Boston. Oh, and for a true legacy of mystery and mayhem, throw in some Colonial era witch hunts.

Ipswich (named after its counterpart town in suffolk, U.K.)  is also home to a great mystery writer, Edith Maxwell, who has set her mystery series right in her local town and, lucky for us, has taken the time to share her writing process with us here.

Edith Maxwell’s novels feature Quaker linguistics professor, Lauren Rousseau. The first book, Speaking of Murder, is in search of publication. 

Her short stories have appeared in Thin Ice and Riptide by Level Best Books, the Larcom Review, and the North Shore Weekly, as well as the forthcoming Fish Nets anthology.

Edith holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics and she’s a member of Sisters in Crime (she serves on the board of the New England chapter).  She’s also the proud mother of two adult sons who are excellent writers in their own right.

Edith blogs weekly on topics relating to Speaking of Murder at Speaking of Mystery. Look for her as Edith M. Maxwell on Facebook and @edithmaxwell on Twitter. 

***

I’m so pleased to be a guest here. When I went to our local bookstore for Aine’s signing of her novel, Dance Lessons, I was encouraged to find that she managed to publish a couple of books while holding down an unrelated day job. It felt like a hopeful omen.

I am fortunate, as a writer, to work a day job only four-fifths time, and to live in a beautiful corner of the world–Ipswich, Massachusetts.

That is, I don’t work Fridays and I don’t work 10-hour days the other days.

My office is in Boston, though, so the consequence of living in a lovely spot is that I get  out of bed before 5 AM every day to make the hour drive into the city in my Prius, trying to avoid traffic on both ends of my commute. And I’m also a  writer during my day job, documenting software and hardware for a small company
that sells project-sharing solutions for video editors.

As much as I wish I were disciplined enough to write every day, I am not and so I don’t. I really can’t get up any earlier than I already do. Even when I have a little energy in the evenings, I’ve already spent eight hours sitting in front of a computer and an additional two hours in the car, so I’m toast for sitting down and writing. After reading Aine’s excellent book, “Writer with a Day Job,”  though, I’m starting to think I should get a little digital voice recorder to take in the car. I could dictate a scene instead of listening to the news from NPR.

I have the option of taking the commuter rail into work (one hour, plus) followed by an hour of subway and walking each way. When I take the train, I can write for almost two hours a day on my netbook. But that makes for a Really Long Day, and uses up my afternoon slot for exercise (the bits of city walking don’t quite count for getting the heart rate up). So I rarely do it.

Writing fiction at work is not part of my job description, although I do admit to checking email from potential publishers and networking on Facebook and Twitter for a few minutes several times during the day.

But on Fridays, my non-work day, I sit at my writer’s desk at home and write fiction. I don’t schedule doctor or massage appointments, I don’t clean or shop, I don’t leave the house. I just write. I try to write steadily from early morning until I run out of steam, which is usually early afternoon, taking breaks only to stretch, grab a snack, or throw a load of laundry on the line.

When I’m writing a first draft, I read over the last scene I wrote and then I try to write at least 1000 new words. Some days I get even more on the page.

I can also write on cross-continental flights, which I take several times a year to visit family in California. I have occasionally written in the passenger seat on a long car trip, and sometimes on weekends I’ll squeeze in more time on the book if gardening, errands, and socializing don’t fill up the hours. I always write when I wait the 90 minutes for my car to be serviced, too.

When I’m at home, I sit in my lovely upstairs office and write at a desktop computer. When I’m traveling, I usually write on my trusty lightweight netbook, the one with the 9-hour battery life. I have, though, been able to write quite well in other locations with a good pen and a nice white pad of lined paper.

The Internet is a big distraction while writing, so I simply don’t open a browser on the desktop system. Instead I leave the netbook downstairs and use that for email. If I need to check a fact in the book, I type [CHECK THIS] so I can find it later, after the creative surge is over, and follow up then. It seems very important not to let myself interrupt the muse
when she’s flowing. After all, it’s Writing Friday, my cherished break from the
day job.

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Writers Conferences – Are They Worth It?

This week I am delighted to welcome Loretta Worters, a New York City writer who also works full time (plus) as vice president of communications for a national non-profit.

In addition to her day job, Loretta is completing her literary memoir, AFTER THE STORM. Set against the backdrop of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, AFTER THE STORM is a personal account of the author’s nine months spent in the ravaged south and speaks to the anxieties, loneliness and violence she encounters while living and working there.  Her memoir follows the dual-narratives of her professional life and her move to Manhattan when her suburban marriage ends.  Her two worlds ultimately collide when a young woman is brutally murdered.

****

I am unpacking the last of my suitcase after attending the Cape Cod Writers Center (CCWC) Conference on Craigville Beach in Centerville, Massachusetts. Shaking out the sand from between the inner lining, I pause.  I have been going to this conference for over a decade now.  Every year I take the Peter Pan Bus from the Port Authority in Manhattan, overloaded with books that are never read and a laptop seldom turned on.  Every year my friend Andrew, who also attends the conference, sighs with impatience as he helps me haul files bulging with research material, magazine clippings and multiple drafts of my work.  “Why do you do this to yourself every year?  Why must you bring all this stuff you’re never going to use?”

“I’ll use it,” I gasp, heaving my knapsack into the bus’ luggage compartment.

But I never do.

Instead, most of my days are spent crammed with writing classes, readings and mingling with writers, agents and teachers, mulling over story arcs, dialogue and the illusive muse.

I remember a tough, no-nonsense New York literary agent who spoke one year at a conference and told us that we should be home writing, not wasting our time attending writers’ conferences.   (Odd advice given she was speaking at a writers’ conference.  Still, some writers and agents agree with this philosophy.)

In Ralph Keyes’ The Courage to Write, he explains:  “Course taking and conference attending are regarded with deep suspicion by many working writers.  ‘How can you teach writing?’ they ask.  Probably you can’t.  Writing techniques can be taught.  But that’s only one purpose served by writers conferences and not necessarily the most important one.  Their more important lessons are conveyed in the realm of the spirit.”

I agree.  The first time I attended a writers’ conference and met other aspiring writers it was an Aha! moment.  I recognized a part of myself in these people.  There was that affinity, that spiritual connection so different from other relationships.

As Keyes points out, writing programs can also provide a safe haven, “a sparsely filled theater in which to practice lines before facing the trauma of a real audience.”

This was true for me when, at the Abroad Writers Conference, which took place three years ago in Thailand, I shared an extremely personal scene from my memoir with the group.  I was apprehensive about revealing myself to these strangers and yet, that setting, that support from mentors like Chris Abani and Rebecca Walker, who had written about their own traumatic experiences, helped me to find the courage to tell my story.

Each course, each professor, has guided me along the way through difficult issues with my work.  It was Richard Hoffman, a sensitive and insightful professor, who cautioned me to be gentle with myself, to recognize that it can take years to sift through the painful memories in order to get them down on paper.  And when I was overwhelmed with how to structure my memoir, Daniel Robb and Paula Balzer provided tips, techniques and detailed exercises to get me back on track.

At the close of the conference, my friend Ann and I take our annual “goodbye walk” the length of Craigville Beach.

Arm in arm we stroll, picking up moon shells and sea glass that have washed up along the shore, talking about our dreams, fantasizing about a writer’s life without the intrusion of a day job.  Long gone are the days, we muse, when a Gustav Flaubert could spend weeks lingering, aching over the perfect word to use while his parents kept him housed and clothed, able to maintain his literary lifestyle.  We don’t have that luxury.  Most writers today do not.

As writers with day jobs, we must carve out time – early mornings before work, on subways, lunch hours and weekends (in between cleaning, cooking and family responsibilities) – to toss out some prose.  It is often difficult to keep the momentum going,  and there can be patches of time when we do not write.

“Here,” Ann says, bending down to pick up a wedge of green sea glass.  The texture is varied, with one side frosty, the other shiny.   “Whenever you think you can’t write,” she says, pressing the smooth glass into my palm, “look at this; keep it with you.  Remember, there are days your writing will be dull and there will be days when your writing will shine.  But either way, write.”

We linger a while longer, watching the waves crash along the shore, breathing in the sea air.  I swallow hard.  I always feel pangs of sadness at the thought of heading back to New York City.  It seems harder every year to leave the conference and I don’t know why.  Perhaps it is because I’m living a different life, a writer’s life when I am here.  Perhaps it is because I’m getting older and wonder if I will ever finish this book?   I will miss the daily interaction with these writers, these friendships that sustain me, nurture me and encourage me throughout my writing life.

I stick the sea glass in my pants pocket, turning it over with my fingers, feeling for the shiny side.

 Where’s your writer’s escape?  Close to home or faraway, is there a spot that fills and fulfillls your writer’s soul?

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BBAW – Book Blogger Appreciation Week – Joan Swan

Organized by Sheila Chantal at Bookjourney, Book Blogger Appreciation Week (BBAW) is a wonderful opportunity for bloggers and book lovers to meet and chat and showcase each other’s work and passions.    

My blogging partner for BBAW is Joan Swan, a romantic suspense novelist (she also dabbles in a little paranormal) who lives with her husband and daughters on California’s beautiful central coast.

Joan’s debut novel FEVER (Kensington Brava) is forthcoming in May 2012, and her second novel, BLAZE follows in fall 2012.  Joan has been a finalist in the RWA Golden Heart Award and the Daphne Du Maurier Awards. In addition to writing and parenting, Joan works as a sonographer at a busy metro hospital in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Read Joan’s blog or visit her website, www.joanswan.com.

***

A: Joan, your debut novel, “FEVER” is coming out in May 2012, then two others–BLAZE and INFERNO will follow.  Congratulations. Obviously FEVER is complete. Are the other two books also complete and ready to hit the shelves?

J: BLAZE is complete and with my editor.  I actually turned the completed and polished manuscript in back in January.  INFERNO (working title) is my proposal novel for Kensington and has not yet been purchased. It is currently in proposal format—query and first three chapters—and also with my editor waiting for review.

A:  Which book did you write first? How long did FEVER take you to write?

J: I wrote FEVER first.  I’d say the first version of FEVER, which was straight romantic suspense, took me between six and eight months to write.  After about a dozen agent rejections, my critique partner suggested I add a paranormal element to it to suit the market.  I rewrote the manuscript with a HEROES paranormal element which took another four to six months.  When the manuscript sold, it was with the agreement that I would make some changes to the story.  I in fact ended up rewriting the second half of the book, which took me another three months.  Phew!  I get exhausted just thinking back!  So, when I put it all together, the final version of FEVER that you all will read (I hope) took me approximately 15 months to write.  Mind you, this is part time writing, as I have a “day job.”

A: What was your main inspiration for the book? What was your, “What if?” or “Ah! Ha!” moment that inspired the full story?

 J. I’ve never had an “ah-ha!” moment that inspired a full story.  My stories seem to come to me in pieces, and I build the full around those pieces.  The inspiration for FEVER came from real life.  In my day job, I’m a sonographer.  One of the many locations I’ve worked at in my career was a relatively small hospital with a huge population of prison inmates.  When I started at the hospital, I might have scanned 2 or 3 prisoners a week.  When I finally quit a year later, I was scanning prisoners all morning, every morning.  Seems the California Department of Corrections is a well-paying client.

During that time, we had contracts with five different prisons of various security levels, including one state mental facility for the criminally insane, specializing in sexual offenders.  Yes, the days the boys came dressed in white jumpsuits—those were my favorites (NOT).  To make a plethora of long stories short, officers (better known as guards) come in as many personalities as any profession, and while they may have all been trained to handle situations the same, they didn’t.  I’ve had officers turn their backs on their prisoners; I’ve had officers uncuff their prisoners and sidle out of the room to chat with another officer or hospital employee; I’ve had officers texting and surfing the web on their phone while I was scanning prisoners; I’ve even had an officer leave me completely alone in a room with an UNcuffed, violent offender.

When you read FEVER, you’ll immediately see some of my real life situations (and fears) come into play.

A: Your D.H. (readers, check out Joan’s website to see what this means) is a California firefighter. Any cross-pollination between your observationns of his life and your books and their main characters(s)? For example, how much of your husband is in Teague? Or is Teague entirely made up?

J: He likes to think there are plenty of similarities. And while any profession such as emergency personnel have similarities in their personalities that draw them to a particular profession, I have to honestly say, my characters are as individual as you and I.  While I may start building a character based on a few characteristics I see in someone I know or, more likely, a collection of characteristics gathered from various acquaintances, by the time the book is written and revised five times (I’m a fan of revision), they have no more resemblance to my family or friends than anyone else might.  At a certain point in development, which for me is pretty early on, my characters truly build themselves and point me in the direction they would take in the story.

 A:  You work a  day job as a sonographer at a busy hospital. Any cross-pollination between your day job and your work?

J: Aside from the impetus for FEVER, my interest in medicine and emergency work, I’d have to say very little.  My day job is so specialized that my outside life crosses over to my work and vice versa.  Though, I sure do meet some wild and whacky characters in my job, which is always expanding my knowledge of human nature.  And as every writer knows, understanding human nature is key to character development.  And character development is key to all good fiction.

A: What was your proudest moment as a writer?

J: When my editor made the off-hand comment that my writing reminded her of the show “24.”  I secretly coveted that show for its complexity and intensity and to have someone compare my writing to something I admired was thrilling.

 A:  The song says, “Momma, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.” Would you let your daughters grow up to be writers?

J: My oldest – no.  She doesn’t have the patience.  She’s a people person, a mover, a shaker, a leader.  She wants to kick-ass and take names.

My youngest—absolutely.  She’s introspective, diligent and gifted with expression.  She’s got a quirky sense of humor and strong ideas that translate beautifully to the page.

Writing, like any other profession, is best suited to those best suited to it.

A: If your daughters *were* to leave home to become writers, what little advice notes would you pack in their writer-backpacks?

J: Learn to trust your gut.  Find healthy outlets for frustration.  Take the time to cultivate your ‘self’ and your creativity.  The Internet is your best friend.

A: You write in your blog that you manage to write five hours per day, seven days per week. It’s an incredible output and discipline. Any secrets?

J: When I wrote that, I was working two days a week close to home.  Now I work three days a week three-and-a-half hours away.  My schedule has definitely changed.  Also, since I’ve published, promotion has become a big part of my daily life, which always kicks a little writing time out of the picture.  Now, I probably manage to get in four hours a day, 5 days a week.  Not nearly as much as I’d like, and not nearly as much as I need to be prolific enough to quit the day job.  I have found that for every choice made, there are consequences, and while I’m an OCD at heart, I’m always struggling for some balance.

A. Are Joan the writer and Joan the wife/mother the same person? If not, what are the differences in your personae?

J: As a writer, I’m much less forgiving of my own inadequacies, much harder on myself, and far more diligent (as in: slave driver).  As a mother and wife, I have the influence of my daughters and husband to soften my rough edges.  My family lightens me considerably and I find I’m much more accepting of other people’s shortcomings than I am of my own, far more easy-going and fun-loving.

***

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Jodi Picoult, Luanne Rice, Glen Cook: Your writing tips, please!

Are these facts or urban legend rumors?  Novelist Luanne Rice writes a book per year. Ditto for Jodi Picoult.  And here’s a definite one: I read that SciFi and fantasy novelist, Glen Cook has already cranked out 40 books during his career–most of them while he worked full time at General Motors.

Fact or fiction, if these book-per-year outputs are all true, then pass me the paper bag–to put over my shameful head.

Actually, I’m not so much in awe of these writers’ productivity as their dexterity in being able to complete one project and get stuck into the next.  Or is it an overlapping, relay-race process? In other words, as one book awaits publication, the author is already drafting the next?

I don’t know. I wish I knew.

My second novel, DANCE LESSONS was launched on April 1, 2011. That’s four months ago. In Rice and Picoult years, that’s a third of a new book. Have I written a third of my next project? Hah!

Last week, I wrote a guest post on this topic for the wonderful literary blog, Savvy Verse and Wit. Until I sat down to pen that piece about the après publication period, I didn’t realize just how strange and direction-less this fallow time actually is.

So I’m having a strange old fallow time. And in some ways, it’s kind of fun. But scattered.

How about you? Can you effortlessly switch projects? Write in more than one genre at a time? Or is there a regrouping phase in between?

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Stop Worrying and Write that Book

A warm welcome to author Lori Rader Day who shares her experience and gives savvy advice on creative writing while working a day job.    

Lori won Good Housekeeping’s first short story contest and the 2008 Chris O’Malley Prize in Fiction from The Madison Review. Her stories have been published in Crab Orchard Review, TimeOut Chicago, After Hours, Big Muddy, Southern Indiana Review, Freight Stories and other publications. 

Currently, in addition to writing and her full-time job, Lori teaches at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, where she earned her MFA in creative writing.

Find her on Twitter: @LoriRaderDay or at her writing blog 

*****

When I returned to full-time work after a break to pursue an MFA in creative writing, I was worried.

How-to finagle a hiatus from corporate America is a different post, but I’ll say this: that MFA time was glorious. I worked hard, producing two full-length manuscripts, publishing eleven short stories, and winning a handful of awards.

A good haul for three years, but I was right to worry. I’d always had trouble making time to write—until I had all the time in the world. During the five years I’d had my previous job, I didn’t write a single word for myself. Returning to the working world, wouldn’t I be thrown back into old patterns? Could I keep my momentum, given that most of my waking hours now belonged to someone else?

The good news from the trenches: It’s possible.

In July I finished a draft of a new novel, a book written entirely while working full time. How did I do it?

Any way I could.

I gave myself time.

The job I took after finishing my degree demanded my full attention. I had a lot to learn, and a new group of people and new environment to get to know. Instead of feeling frustrated that I had no energy—and no brain cells—to get any writing done, I penciled in a grace period. I gave myself six weeks before even bothering to try to write. Instead, I read cheerful books—discovering the delightful The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books—and watched whatever bad television I wanted.

I determined my best time.

When I was finally ready to write again, I had to figure out when it would happen. While in school, I could often write whenever the mood struck. Mornings were often best. Without the luxury of “whenever I want,” I had to decide what time I’d get the writing done or it wouldn’t. I had to make a plan—

I compromise.

—And then I had to let the plan slide when it didn’t work. My best time to write might be in the morning, but I had other responsibilities then that couldn’t be put off. (You try telling my dog that she doesn’t get a walk.)

While I sometimes still get up early to spend an hour writing before work, I had to compromise my best time to get time at all. Most of my writing—including the work for this post—occurs during my lunch hour. I still have to compromise: Maybe I have a working lunch one day, or a friend’s in town and wants to introduce me to Ethiopian food. But that’s life, and what life is made of. Ethiopian food, as it turns out, is really good.

I invest.

I probably wouldn’t go get Ethiopian on my own. It’s communal food. But I do go out to lunch often, alone. Totally and unabashedly asking for a table for one, yes, I said one.

Lunches out don’t ensure that I write, but they ensure that I leave my office. When I leave my office, my time reverts to my own stewardship. Sometimes I need to run an errand, but most days I take my computer to one of the many fine establishments in the town where I work. Eating out for lunch so often is expensive and calorific, but it’s an investment I make that helps separate (and put to use) the hour in the middle of the day that still belongs to me.

Part of the lunches-out plan means investing in more than the cost of a sandwich. I have to keep a stock of quarters for the parking meters—which means going to the bank when I start to run out, see “be prepared” advice below—and I tip well. Really well. I don’t want to walk into a favorite restaurant with my telltale computer and see the servers roll their eyes.

I prepare.

I can commit the time, have my roll of quarters ready, and then be foiled by so many things. A change in plans at work. A sudden deadline. A call from home that the refrigerator blew up. And then if I survive all that and my computer isn’t charged, the day could still be a net-gain of zero words.

Be ready to write. Carry your notebook or your computer all the time. Or both. Make sure your computer is fully charged when you leave the office to write, because it’s a dog-eat-outlet world out there. I’m bothered by certain kinds of noises, so I always carry a set of headphones. (I built an iTunes playlist of melancholy music I use to cancel out chopsticks clicking or strident voices.)

I also keep a separate file of all the ideas I have for the piece I’m writing, cutting down the number of minutes I have to look at the blinking cursor. The blinking cursor, cousin to the blank page, is the enemy. Some writers leave a scene half-written—or even stop in the middle of a sentence—in order to give themselves a running start the next day. I don’t subscribe to this as a religion, but I do often start a writing session by reading the work I did the day before. That’s the way I slip inside the character once again, and then, if it’s a good day, I’m typing.

I try again.

Not every day is a good day.

I write any way I can.

My methods might not work for you. Sometimes, they don’t work for me. But if you keep trying, keep finessing how you get the writing done, you’ll get the writing done.

Write in the morning. Or write during your lunch break. Or write after work, huddled in a café while traffic dies down. Or write in the evening, after you put your children to bed. Write on weekends, on vacations. Write. We’re the ones who have to protect our own need to do the work.

Several bad, zero-word days have passed since I first started this article, but here we are, at the end. I wrote my novel draft in pretty much the same way, me and my laptop at cafes, at sushi bars, on my backporch. A few hours on a Saturday, forty minutes during lunch, a half hour before meeting girlfriends for pizza. A few words at a time, as long as it took. (It took over a year.) And in that same way, I’ll peck away at draft two.

Maybe it would be great to have all the time in the world, but I’m no longer worried. My day job provides security for my family in these tough times, after all. And beyond that, I have all the time there is. So do you.

***

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Writing and the day job — It’s enough to make your hair curl

“Standing there at my car, the cop’s lips twitched. He was trying not to laugh. At me. Once again, I was driving to work with a head full of large, blue hair curlers … “

So goes my recent post at Women Writers. Women Books.  Actually, the piece is not really about hair curlers or human vanity. Instead, it’s about the realities of balancing our day job lives with our need to write.  It’s about making the monthly bills as we also make art. It’s about making trade offs–sacrificing one daily treat for the bigger  payout: writing time.

When I left my writing attic to go get me a job, I gave up the morning hair primp.

How about you? What have you given up or traded for  more personal or creative time in your life?

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A More Palatable Sandwich–Writing, Parenting and Elder Care

This week, I have the great pleasure of welcoming Katherine Hauswirth, a working mother and professional writer from Connecticut.

Katherine is the author of Harriet’s Voice: A Writing Mother’s Journey, available through amazon.com or offthebookshelf.com.  As well as being a working mother, she writes prose and poetry, including a recent poem at Chronogram and guest columns on books at BiblioBuffet.com.  Lucky for us,  Katherine agreed to be one of the profiled authors in “Writer with a Day Job.”  Now, she has graciously agreed to write on her expereience of being a member of the “sandwich generation”–those of us who are caring for our kids and our aging parents. Yes, all this, and writing, too. Welcome Katherine. 

 

Let’s say, hypothetically, that you find yourself a member of the “sandwich generation.”Or maybe not so hypothetically—a study sponsored by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics that focused solely on women in their 50s and 60s found that up to one third of those in this age group are simultaneously caring for parents and children. The study was narrow. I know I’m not the only one in my 40-something circle affected by these dueling needs, and that includes men also encountering this challenge.

As medical advances continue to stretch the human lifespan and allow for delayed entry into parenthood, more and more adults find themselves caring for parents while trying to do at least as good a job parenting their own children. This might feel somewhat more manageable if a job and/or a significant other weren’t also in the mix. Add to this a desire to pursue creative dreams, and life becomes a super generous and quite complicated sandwich, almost too big to get your mouth around.

So what to do? Well, I learned two essentials while working in psychiatry, and they’ve been reinforced by my own experience as a working mom with an elderly mother who needs more and more care. The first: seeking help, in whatever form you can get it, is so important. That help might be a friend who listens; a priest, rabbi, or worship community; the local social services department; a sibling; or a good book on the subject.

The second essential is that outlook is so critical. There’s a reason the “glass half full or glass half empty” analogy is used so often. Of course, most situations can’t be reduced to a simple “look on the bright side” prescription. But there’s a whole, quite decently validated school of cognitive therapy in which re-framing a negative perception can have a noticeable impact over time.

For writers, it can be worthwhile to “re-frame” that looming sandwich from a different angle.

To take the metaphor a step further, what are the condiments of life that might make that oversized sandwich a more enjoyable experience? Well, for one, your sandwich has just presented you with a wealth of material covering a good chunk of the spectrum of humanity, whether you write prose or poetry, fiction or fact. Tap into it, whether from the pragmatic or the emotional perspective.

If new material is the mustard, the need to become more highly organized might be the ketchup. Ever hear that expression, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it?” The fact that you are in high demand can help you learn to break tasks down into manageable steps and to recognize what things you simply can’t manage, which can make room for a very efficient system of triage. Yes, there’ll be times where writing takes a back seat, but you’ll also know when you take that precious time to write that you really deserve it and will be sure to use it wisely.

Finally, we come to the relish. Stress can be the ultimate crucible for learning what about what makes you tick and what saps your strength. Pay attention to the lessons you are learning about yourself, because they do translate to other areas. I find that I tend to get cold and clinical when trying to discuss a medical decision with my mom; I can be just as distant when doing a writing assignment on this type of situation. What a great breakthrough it will be, in both cases, to let my heart show more.

So, advice for the sandwich you might find on your plate? Sit back, chew slowly, watch out for random toothpicks, and savor the opportunity.

How do you deal with stress–at work, at home or under writing deadline?

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Nail that Writing Project (and the door to Mom’s home office)

Ack! I missed an entire week of posting. Why? Because I took a mini-break with my husband in the foothills of the Berkshires. It was bliss. But I’ve been remiss. So today, I am atoning for my absence by bringing you some writing wit and wisdom from author, columnist, marketing executive and mother of three boys (and a dog), Jennifer Karin.

In addition to her just-completed novel, “Asunder,” Jennifer’s books include “Letters to a Girl,” “The Bear who Loves Halloween” and “The Dreamstarter Books” 1 & 2. “Dreamstarter” won the 2009 Book of the Year Award from “Creative Child” magazine.  

Jennifer penned the weekly humor column, “Zen Mother,” which won the National Humor Writers of the Month award by the Erma  Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.

Follow Jennifer’s writing blog.  Oh, and full blogger’s disclosure here:  As well as balancing her paid work, family and creative writing, Jennifer is a wonderful friend (that’s only ‘cos she lets me have long and deep conversations with her oh-so-cute dog).

Interview with Author Jennifer Karin 

1. Jennifer, I know you were a child prodigy, but when did you start writing (approx)?

 Well, I was not a writer as a child. Rather, I had a paintbrush in one hand, and held my cat in the other, and I only occasionally painted the cat . . . (Could you wait a minute, Aine? I need to close my office door) . . . I was a late bloomer when it came to creative writing, and I am self-taught, and, therefore, continue my education every day. I didn’t start any creative writing projects until I turned forty. But, my academic background and my career in public relations were based on strong analytical writing and journalism, so I’ve been writing intensively since I was fifteen.

 2. As a busy marketing professional and Mum to two boys and a dog, do you write in the mornings, evenings, lunchtime or on weekends?   

Three boys! (Hold on, I just want to nail a 2×4 across the door.) Work comes first, always, no matter how loud my characters are shouting at me. That leaves very little time for creative writing, so I’ve learned to write anywhere, especially in my head. When I have a free moment . . . (Excuse, me, Aine. “HEY! MOMMY’S WORKING HERE!!”) I quickly write down everything I was daydreaming about, while the boys wrap the dog in toilet paper.

 3. Jennifer, as someone who mostly does your paid work from home, how do you separate your paid work from your creative work?    

I’m very lucky to have an office in my home. It’s my sanctuary . . . (Hate to stop the interview again, Aine. I need to slide the bureau in front of my door.) . . . It allows me to complete my contracted work in a timely and professional manner. And that’s what my paying clients expect from me: professionalism. (“NO, YOU CAN’T COME IN, HENCE THE EXPLOSIVES I PLANTED UNDER THE FLOORBOARDS!”) Anyway, when it comes to creative writing, a change of scenery is a big help. Away from the house. Away. Away. Away.

 4. Universally, do you believe that being a parent makes you a better writer? How?  

I’m sorry? What? Oh, distraction. Well, many readers say my humor column represents my best writing, and that comes from the depths of exhaustion, motherhood, aging, and all the other distractions of real life, so I’d have to say the more snowballs life throws at me, the better the writer I am. Parenting is more of an avalanche, but the climb out is priceless. 

 5. What is/was the happiest moment of your entire writing life?

 Wow, that’s a heavy question, Aine! Let me get my box of tissues. I’d have to say, (sniff, sniff) — and this is really quite emotional for me — my happiest moment was when I killed off my husband for the first time in my Zen Mother column. But the second time was quite lovely as well.

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The Studio Tour: How Mega Busy Writers Make it Work

Write every day. Show don’t tell.  Mind your online manners. So go the writers’ yada, yada’s.  But honestly, is there anything more monotonous than some author doing the preachy-preachy about the writing process and craft?

While I was writing and researching Writer with a Day Job, I wanted to include these advice staples–yes–but I also wanted to set up a kind of virtual studio tour in which readers could watch and eavesdrop on some busy writers at work.

Here are the book’s complete, uncut author interviews, as well as a bio on each writer and a link to each writer’s website.  From California to Massachusetts, from New Orleans (that’s a whole state by itself, right?) to New York, these writers speak to that tightrope walk of writing, working and/or parenting.

A warm thank-you to all who participated.  Read their smart words, visit their websites and let them know how much you appreciate their savvy advice.

They are (in alpha order):

Debra Anderson – San Diego

Brunonia Barry  – Massachusetts

John Brehm – Colorado

Monica Carter – Los Angeles

Stephanie Cowell – New York City

Susanne Dunlap  – New York City

Laurie Lee Drummond  – Oregon

Karl Iagnemma  – Boston

Naomi Feigelson Chase  – New York and Cape Cod

Sharon Charde – Connecticut

Katherine Hauswirth – Connecticut

Ava Haymon – Baton  Rouge

Ted Mitchell (writing as T.J. Alexian), Massachusetts

Kitty Gogins – Minnesota

Holly Robinson – Massachusetts

Annette Harper – New Orleans

Meredith Hall – Maine

Reba Elliott – Washington, DC

Mark Greaney – Memphis

Gabriel Valjan – Boston

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Help Wanted: Love Potion # 5

Look who’s dropped on by!

It’s T.J. Alexian, who is one of the working authors interviewed in “Writer with a Day Job.” 

T.J.  (a pen name) works full time in Public Relations and is the author of three novels. He’s the father of three children and directs regional musical theater productions in his free time. At present, he’s working on his next novel, “Pictures of You.” He is a frequent contributor to The Write On Project, and you can also find his work on his personal blog at Snapshots From Eldredge.

Help Wanted: Love Potion # 5

Falling in love for the first time’s not so hard, right? Boy meets concept. Boy falls in love with concept. Literary intercourse then ensues: coax out that first draft, follow it up with quite a bit of massage work, keep going at it until you (hopefully) reach a satisfying conclusion. A story is the end result.

Falling in love that first time is easier, I think, than doing so the
second, third, or twenty-second time around. There’s a bit more than “rinse lather repeat” built into the whole process, after all.

Last winter, I finished my fourth full-length manuscript. It had been a two-year birthing: from initial brainstorm (“wouldn’t it be interesting if…”) to that first awful first draft, to feedback, to a less-awful second draft, to agent (and other reader) feedback, to where things stand right now. Which is: it’s in the hands of the gods…or, at least, awaiting publisher feedback. If those gods are kind, hopefully I’ll get nice, constructive, encouraging publisher feedback that will result in a book deal. Dare to dream, right?

To clear the palette, at the start of the new year, I decided to take a break from novel writing and threw myself into directing a production of Guys and Dolls at a local college. Forty performers, a 12-piece orchestra. Lighting, sound and costume to piece together. Blocking. Many mini temper tantrums. Many drunken evenings spent partying with the cast. It’s the price one has to pay for one’s art.

Now , here I am, six months later, with that palette clear as spring water and ready to jump back into things, all over again. Time to fall in love for the fifth time. I’ve even got the concept, too. I’ve been eying it from afar for about a year now.

So why do I feel a bit of hesitation? A certain amount of reluctance to do more than simply gaze longingly across the room at this object d’hopefully d’art? Why am I just sitting at the bar, drink in hand? Why don’t I walk up, introduce myself, sit down at that table, whip out my yellow legal pad, and strike up a conversation? What accounts for this strange delay I’m experiencing?

The play has been over for a month now, and I’m no closer now to starting that fifth novel than I was during auditions in February.

I suppose I could rationalize things. It is summer, after all. I do have three kids, including one that’s pregnant and one that’s just learning to drive—and I’m not sure what scares me more, by the way, the thought of being a grandfather or the thought of my 17-year-old behind the wheel. I do have a busy day job, and a road trip to Florida I’ve been planning. And of course, there’s lots of reading material to catch up with, too, after all those months spent directing and partying…volume one of Mark Twain’s autobiography is not going to read itself, after all!

Even so. The concept across the room is mighty tempting. She glances across every so often with a sultry come-hither look, daring me to get to know her better. And I really would like to do more than simply glance longingly back.

I know, I know. My solution is the same as it always is, same as it was for the very first novel, same as it will be for the thirtieth. Sit down, put on paper my thoughts. Start to plot out the story in my head. Work to create the characters, to bring them to life.

But, oh God, falling in love is so difficult sometimes. It’s so much
effort. How about if the concept’s not as workable as the others? How about if we’re not a good match? If the coaxing, massaging, hard work comes to naught?

No, no, no. What if-ing like that is pointless, serves no purpose. I know in my heart, it’s time to get off that stool, make those introductions. I just need to take a few minutes to work up my best pick up line, put my feet on the ground, head toward the other side of the room, and…

“So, what’s a nice concept like you doing in a place like this?”

She beckons to me, alluringly. This may be the start of something good.

 I’ll let you know how things go.

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Our Just Desserts (Psst! No Calories)

 

When I published “Writer with a Day Job” (Writers Digest Books, 2011), I hoped that it would instigate us day-job writers to get chatting and sharing our strategies for balancing work with writing. Or I thought that some readers might comment on the book’s tutorials on the actual craft of writing narrative.

These have happened. But two weeks ago, one reader-feedback  really stopped me in my tracks. It was a note from a woman who said that her personal takeaway from the book was that we deserve to write. Like many of us, this woman is balancing a job, a family and some additional responsibilities for her extended family.

Here’s an excerpt from her very kind email:  

“Sometimes it’s hard to justify writing even an hour a day when my job demands so much of me, and when the people I love need me so much. Your approach has helped me make an important shift: recognizing that it’s writing that makes me a better person,  that this feeds everything else.”

For years and years (and even still), this “deserving” issue was the biggest block to my own writing.

In 1992, amidst an interstate move and  a few bad financial hits,  I took the first steps toward my lifelong dream of being a writer. I signed up for a master’s program at a college in our new town—a program I financed through a patchwork of cash `n carry jobs, credit cards, a research assistantship and a very large dollop of naiveté.

Three months before this, my husband and I had packed our things into a Ryder truck and rented our house (it wouldn’t sell) and moved to this place where he accepted a lower-level position at his old company. It was this or take a company pink slip. I worked as a waitress and as a front desk clerk and as a college administrative assistant. Once or twice a week, I left that day’s particular job and gobbled down an after-work sandwich en route to my graduate classroom where, supposedly, I would enter the writing life.

But in that classroom or, later, scribbling in a bagel shop on my lunch hour,  I believed that a girl like me—a new immigrant, a working wife, the child of working class parents—was an imposter.  Creative writing was for the believers. The rich. The leisured. The erudite.  Creative writing was for those who didn’t lie awake at night worrying about the mortgage, the in-laws or the credit cards.

Even when I did write or publish, I wrote with a certain timidity.  As I sat there scribbling in strip mall cafes, or when I researched my papers in the college library, I envisioned a grand American literate—an exclusive club of scribes who held the secret code to La Vie des Ecrivans. I would never be a member. I would never deserve it.

What a bloody waste.

Now that I’m middle aged, now that I’ve cleared my credit cards, I know that writing is as much about believing as it is about doing.  Above all, it’s about believing that writing is something that you deserve to do.

What about you? Do you believe, deeply, that you deserve the personal time out that it takes to write?  Do women come to believe this more easily than men?

photo credit: www.freewebphoto.com

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Writer with a Day Job – Welcome

Creative Writing: You want the Side Salad with That?

I got the idea for the book,  “Writer with a Day Job” while sitting outside my office building.  This was the corporate building (I have since switched jobs) where I made my living, to which I commuted five days per week.

I was sitting on the stone steps at the back of the building, eating a lunchtime salad and trying very hard not to dribble the balsamic vinaigrette dressing onto the typescript pages I was editing.  That day’s lunchtime writing assignment: to read and edit a creative nonfiction essay about pet ownership.  Now that I think about it,  I never finished that essay–so don’t look for it in the New Yorker.

So there I was, eating, reading, writing–only glancing up from my manuscript to check my watch for when it was time to go back in through those glass doors and back to my cubicle and my other, paid job.

I had about 40 minutes in which to edit and re-draft my essay. As a lifelong procrastinator who tends to draft in my head and then write things just before submission date,I knew just how much work you can cram into 40 minutes.

There’s nothing like a sunny spring day in New England to bring the cubicle corporatoids skittering into the daylight. So as I sat there reading and editing,  the rest of the office crowd emerged blinking into the sunlight to mill around that nondescript courtyard. They gossiped, paced or gabbled on their cell phones.

The truth? I wanted to tell them to shut it. But then, this wasn’t my personal writing studio.  So actually, I was the one who had to shut out all those voices and distractions.

And then I had a vision. No, seriously. And please don’t summon the whacko police–at least not yet. But in my mind’s eye, I saw all of us day job writers across America–thousands of us sitting in bagel shops or huddled in doorways or sitting in our cars with our iPods, trying to jam in a little bit of writing while waiting for the kids to get out of soccer practice or while sitting in the dentist’s waiting room.  Mine wasn’t the Hollywood vision of a creative writer. But it was the authentic, 21st-century version.

Then I thought of all the writing students who have attended my writing classes and workshops for adult learners. Nurses. Accountants. Marketers. Dads. Moms. Doctors. Lawyers. Carpenters.   Except for a very lucky or a bestseller few,  most of us writers are holding down a day job while also writing. We’re walking that tightrope between creating art and paying the rent.

So the book, “Writer with a Day Job” was born.

I took another bite of my salad and turned over my typescript page and began to scribble some initial ideas for the book.

For the next few weeks, at home or on the commute, I had more ideas for the book.

But listen,  ideas are one thing. Translating those  ideas into useful, in-the-trenches guidelines is another process. Could my own experiences in the craft and process of writing be useful to other writers?

You be the judge.

Writers Digest Books published “Writer with a Day Job” in June 2011. As well as guidelines, inspiration and tutorials, the book includes interviews with 20 creative writers from across the country. These are novelists, essayists, memoirists and poets who have or currently balance work, parenting and writing.

Since the book’s publication date, other writers–all of whom are balancing work, family and creativity–have  emailed with their comments and questions.

And now … Ta! Da! Le blog, “Writer with a Day Job.”

Let’s make this our virtual salon.

As I add new posts and guest posts, I invite you to comment. I invite you to  share your own experiences,  successes and … ahem … challenges in finding balance between your writing and your working lives.

Meanwhile, here’s an excerpt from “Writer  with a Day Job.” Yes, wouldn’t you know it? It’s about writing on your lunch hour.

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Books for Writers: Writer with a Day Job

Always fun to see what people take away from a book.

The Happy Elephant Blog

As writers, many of us dream of the day we’ll be able to give up our day jobs to write full time. We struggle to find time to write between, work and/or school, family, and the other obligations that fill our time. We often find (or make) excuses. How do we find the time to write when writing isn’t our full-time job?

I first read Writer with a Day Job by Aine Greaney in preparation for NaNoWriMo. I was grabbed by the title and subtitle: “Inspiration & Exercises to Help You Craft a Writing Life Alongside Your Career.”

This book lists challenges (read: excuses) writers with day jobs face and ways to overcome them. It offers suggestions to find time to write during your day. For some writers, that might mean waking an up an hour early to write before the workday starts, during your lunch hour, or at the…

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