Thursday, February 15, 2018

Guest Blogger Stephanie Vanderslice on Rest, Writing, and the Walking Cure

The name Stephanie Vanderslice often comes up when discussing best practices for teaching writing. I’ve happily hosted her here on the blog before, and am pleased to welcome her back. Her latest book, The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life, is chock full of solid, writer-tested, smart, and innovative tips on living a writing life in the 21st century. Stephanie holds an MFA in fiction writing from George Mason University and now directs the Arkansas Writer’s MFA Workshop at the University of Central Arkansas.

Please welcome Stephanie Vanderslice

I originally put the book, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, on my reading list last summer because the title was so tempting, because I am a victim of the modern culture of “busyness” as much as anyone else, and because I thought I might find in its pages the secret to managing my time.

Instead, what I found more than anything else was a history of artists and the creative life over the last several centuries, a history with a surprisingly common thread: walking.  Walking, or some kind of meditative physical activity undertaken without distraction, without trying to multitask or do anything else but put one foot in front of another. 

I was astonished to learn how important walking had been throughout history, how many of the world’s great writers and artists have been walkers. Jefferson, Kierkegaard, C.S. Lewis. Alice Munro, Barbara McClintock (Geneticist), Lin Manuel Miranda. They all got their best ideas walking.

I am no stranger to physical exercise. I ride for miles each week on a stationary bike while staring at my Kindle or reading a magazine, and I power walk around my neighborhood while listening to podcasts. Anything to keep my mind occupied, because even though I’ve exercised for 30 years, I still find it pretty boring. 

The kind of exercise advocated in Rest was different. The kind of physical movement that inspired the creatives of the past was exercise for its own sake. It was supposed to be boring. That was the point. As Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard reveals, “I have walked myself into my best thoughts.”

After reading Rest, I became so enamored of walking that I first began scheming to make my commute to the university where I teach on foot—a 20-minute prospect each way—but the problem of figuring out what to do with all the stuff I’d need to schlep back and forth persisted. In the end, I decided to start smaller, with a 45-minute neighborhood stroll after my morning writing sessions. The new caveat: headphones not allowed.  I had to give my mind as much freedom to roam as my body. 

The results have been impressive. Each walk has ended with so many writing ideas, especially development ideas for my novel-in-progress, that I quickly had to start a file called, “walking ideas,” to keep track of them. Moreover, I am learning not to pressure myself on these jaunts, telling myself that my mind can go wherever it wants, even if that means perseverating on what I should have said at yesterday’s faculty meeting. Still, I have yet to return home, even on the most stressful of days, without a revelation about something I was writing.

It’s not just Rest that’s onto something. Recently at a reading at my university, a student asked renowned poet Maggie Smith how she generated her ideas. “Put your phone away and take a walk,” she said.

No wonder the Romantics spent so much time wandering the moors. So, while Rest (the book) has not necessarily granted me an extra hour a day or helped me maximize my REM sleep, it has changed my creative life. See for yourself—read Rest and give the “daily constitutional” a try.

Connect with Stephanie on Twitter, Facebook, or at her website.

Images courtesy S. Vanderslice

Friday, February 9, 2018

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- February 9, 2018 Edition

> Do you hedge and cower in your writing, using a lot of qualifier words and unnecessary amplifiers? Jessi Rita Hoffman has some notes for you, via Jane Friedman's site.

> On Tiferet Talks (podcast for Tiferet Journal), Gayle Brandeis, author of the memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis, chats with one of my former mentors, Leslea Newman, author of the poetry book, I Carry My Mother, and many other significant works, including A Letter to Harvey Milk and October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard.

> Many writers who have put up posts and articles on Huffington Post since its inception have hoped the site would wake up and end its non-paying policy; instead, HuffPo will simply stop publishing any outside contributors.

> Anyone else love dissecting short works by looking at their opening and/or closing lines in isolation? In this post, the editors at Brevity are luring readers in with the first lines of essays published in their newest issue.

> The NBCC (National Book Critics Circle) has announced its 2017 Award Finalists in advance of the March 17 presentations.

>In the category of Print-This-Out-and-Give-It-To-a-Non-Writer-Friend, Leslie Pietrzyk notes all the ways to help a writer.

> Finally, this one's just for my New Jersey/NYC/Eastern Pennsylvania writer friends: looking for a relaxing place and atmosphere to disappear for a day and write? Check out next Saturday's Cedar Ridge Writers Series mid-winter retreat.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Guest Blogger, Novelist Anca L. Szilágyi on Whatever Works: Looking at Visual Art to Write Inspired Prose

 I guess in the past debut authors talked in person about the trajectory hurling them toward launch day—and the rolling emotions and endless details that accompany that journey. Today, we find one another in specialized Facebook groups and exchange intel. That’s how I got to know Anca Szilágyi.

Anca is the author of the newly published novel, Daughters of the Air, which Shelf Awareness called “a striking debut from a writer to watch.” Her writing appears in Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Lilith Magazine, and she will be teaching Writing Contemporary Fairy Tales at Portland (Oregon’s) Literary Arts and with StoryStudio Chicago while on book tour. She received the inaugural Artist Trust/Gar LaSalle Storyteller Award, and earned grants and fellowships from Vermont Studio Center, 4Culture, Made at Hugo House, and the Jack Straw Cultural Center. Originally from Brooklyn, she currently lives in Seattle.

Please welcome Anca L. Szilágyi.

            When I was just starting to write seriously, I fetishized notebooks—and, like an eight-year-old—stickers.  I preferred black, hard-backed notebooks with graph paper that forced my writing into small, neat boxes.  My favorite treat was popping into a stationary store in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, to buy a cheap book of Dover Art Stickers depicting famous paintings by Michelangelo, Kahlo, Goya, and the like. I was trying to write the first draft of my first novel, Daughters of the Air, using Hemingway’s supposed model of 300 words a day, no more, no less, stopping mid-sentence and all that jazz. The mid-sentence idea was cool; there’s always something to come back to. (And if you didn’t remember what you were coming back to, maybe it wasn’t all that good to begin with.)

            Aside from the word count, I didn’t have a very language-oriented approach to writing, which, come to think of it, is kind of strange. I don’t like complicated writing prompts. (Write a dialogue between a mother and a cat. The mother should be in a sour mood saying sweet things, and the cat should be doing something that is both like and unlike a cat. Include the words mousse, temperament, and proclivity.)  In addition, the blank page was your typical blank-page nightmare, even with all those calming blue gridlines. So, in came the art. I would shuffle the stack of sticker books with my eyes closed, randomly open one and choose a sticker. Then came joy, disappointment, or bafflement at my selection. The tiny reproduction took up a square of space on the page, and then I had to write. Whatever came to mind. Hopefully related to the book. Sometimes not.

            The really famous painters oozed their egos all over the page. I had little to say about Michelangelo. Kahlo demanded I only write about Kahlo. Which is fine, because I love Kahlo, but my novel has nothing to do with her. It was the lesser known painters, to me at least, that gave me an opening. Sad, dark flowers by Nolde. Chagall’s gold-hued and green warmth. Modigliani’s eyeless women. Kandinsky’s colorful abstractions, suggesting messy, unarticulated internal conflicts.

            Over time, Nolde faded away, but Chagall fueled the father in my novel, Modigliani the mother, and Kandinsky their daughter, Pluta. Through all this groping in the dark with my shuffling, I learned to return to these three artists in particular. (Goya dropped in sometimes.)  In retrospect, I can see how these painters shaped the novel’s characters in personality and to some lesser extent, their biographies.

The father in my novel is warm and is an Ashkenazi Jew. Modigliani didn’t paint eyes as he felt they were too intimate, and the mother in my novel is cold and distant. And, like Modigliani, a Sephardic Jew. (These two demographic tidbits also aligned with the Jewish cultures of Buenos Aires I had been researching.)  Writing from Kandinsky’s works was a special challenge (no gestures, no objects), but somehow, they suggested a path for my protagonist, Pluta, in her emotional and actual journey: messy, indirect, all scribbled up.

            When I finished the first draft, this ekphrastic process gradually fell away. The raw material was before me, and it was time to make sense of it. A couple of reviews have called my book surprising (in a good way, thank goodness), and I think in part the surprising quality came from the experiment of engaging with art in this way.

It was hardly the most efficient way of writing a novel. That first draft took several years, and then I went to graduate school and rewrote the book. But I’m not sure efficiency is something we should necessarily value in art. It’s art, after all—not paint-by-numbers. Even as it is painful to grope around in the dark looking for the shape of a story and its meaning, even as it could take longer—much longer—than you would expect—if it wasn’t a surprising process with surprising results why would I even write?

You can find Anca at her website or on Twitter. Her book tour is taking her to Bainbridge Island, Spokane, Portland, Boston, New York, Chicago, and Tampa (for AWP) this winter, with additional spring and summer West Coast events, all listed here.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- January 12, 2018 Edition

> Charles Simic, at the New York Review of Books, pays homage to "The Poet's Pencil" (and that would be a non-metaphorical pencil).

> The Authors Guild wants writers to know that a Senate floor vote is now assured on a bill to reverse the FCC's recent repeal of Net Neutrality. If you haven't made your voice heard, do so now, before the anticipated vote on Monday, 1/15.

> If you're anything like me, your book buying reach extends way beyond your book reading grasp. And Jessica Stillman, at Inc. (plus a whole bunch of people she interviewed), say that's okay; in fact, it's a good thing.

> Jane Friedman looks back at the book publishing issues that shaped 2017.

> Finally, watching this video/song parody both calmed and worried me, as I'm currently asking bookstores and libraries to host me when my book publishes this spring. Forget that Waldenbooks has been gone for eons; author Parnell Hall nails the angst (and, if you're smart, good humor) that accompanies author appearances. 

Have a great weekend!

Image: Flickr/CreativeCommons

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A Short Story About Getting Published on Longreads, and Why the Timing is Perfect for a Memoir Author-in-Waiting

I'm proud to say I have a new work of nonfiction just published at the wonderful Longreads, home to such a vast range of compelling journalism, essays, and narratives.

"What To Do With a Man Who Has a Story, and A Gun" is something different for me. Though I've written before about past loves, to write this story the way it needed to be told forced me into areas I rarely go on the page: sex, my own youth-fueled dangerous behaviors, and the politics of class and wealth I learned as a privileged young person.

I hesitated at first to send this piece out on submission, worried about what reactions it might bring from those more used to me writing about milder, more "acceptable" life passages. 

Then I put on my grown up writer woman pants and hurled it into the editorial cosmos. It landed at the perfect place, where editor Sari Botton gave it that slight extra push it needed to truly shine.

Once I knew it was going to run, I asked my kids not to read it, and warned my husband (Frank, who is that rare, blessed nonfiction writer's spouse who never tells me what personal stuff I can't write about) to read with caution because he might not like knowing this particular story.

As it turned out, Frank read it and with his usual mix of candor and enthusiastic support, said he was intrigued to know more about who I was in the eight years between when he and I first met (when I was 15), and when we circled back to one another in our mid-20s. I don't know if our sons have read it (how effective is it anyway to put something off limits?), but I think by now these adult children (of 19 and 24) can handle knowing their mother is a flesh-and-blood flawed human who learns from her experiences. And maybe they'll learn something from the story I tell about trusting too soon, conflating sex with love, and ignoring one's intuition.

Some friends and relatives were a little bit shocked and surprised that I told this story. A few, I suspect, are appalled. That's okay. It is, perhaps, a good practice run.

In four months, my memoir will be published and many people (well, I hope many!) will be reading about other parts of my personal life: about what I did with grief; my adult relationship with my parents; what it was like to grow up where and how I did; and how family dynamics, siblings, and other relatives shaped my experiences. And certainly some who read that book -- strangers and perhaps even people I know and care about -- will not like everything it has to say. 

And I'll need my grown up writer woman pants, pulled up and in place. 

Friday, December 29, 2017

Top 20 Most-Read Blog Posts of 2017 on Lisa Romeo Writes

As another blogging year ends, I'm grateful to have continued to connect with other writers and readers, and for the many intelligent, interesting, generous guest contributors who have shared their wisdom and experiences. (And while I now have a newly launched, full website, the blog will continue.)

Which brings me to the top 20 most-read blog posts of 2017, which I'm happy to say include several guest posts from writers I've been lucky to host. 

In case you missed a few the first time around, now's a great time to catch up.  Especially number 14, which suggests a terrific thing for writers to do before 2018 begins!  (Friday Fridge Clean-Out posts are not listed.)

1. Guest Blogger Melanie Brooks on: Writing Your Story, and Crying if you Want (or Need) To

2. Memoir Cover: First Peek (Happy Birthday, Dad)

3.  Memoir Book Report – Part III: The Pitch Session that Changed Everything (even though it was "unsuccessful")

4. Memoir Book Report, Part V: Weathering the Query & Manuscript Submission Cycle, from Confusion to Contact to Contract

5. Being Ethel to a BFF's Lucy Yields one Personal Essay after Another

6. Memoir Book Report: Process, Production, Path to Publication – Part I: Sign, Wait, Hope, Think, Revise

7. I Resolve to...Read. And read and read and read and read

8. What I Heard and Learned at the AWP Writers Conference

9. Guest Blogger David Galef on: One Solution to a Lot in a Little Space -- The Flash Vignette

10. Read-Along. Like a Ride-Along. But with books.

11. Memoir Book Report -- Part IV: Title Roulette

12. Guest Blogger Martha Moffett on Writing Submissions and the Race to the Bottom: The Rejection Club

13. Of Paper, Files, Age and Advice

14. What's on Your Writer's *I Did It List* for 2017?

15.  Guest Blogger Pam Lobley on How She Wrote a Parenting Book Without Really Meaning To

16. Writer Fights AWP Siren. AWP Wins. Notes on a Last Minute Writers Conference Trip.

17. Memoir Book Report: Part II -- Final Manuscript Revisions

18. Guest Blogger Marjorie Simmins on Memoir, Starry Night Memories, and What She Learned from a Workshop Student

19. Home from Hippocamp with a Bunch of Thoughts about Writers Conferences

20. Guest Blogger Judy Mollen Walters on Creating Fictional Worlds From What We Know

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

What's on Your Writer's *I Did It List* for 2017?

Here on the blog, in 2010, I first shared something I’d been doing privately for years: the “I Did It List”—looking back and noting what I’d accomplished in those quickly disappearing twelve months, even if it wasn’t what I’d set out to do. I’d been making a personal “I Did It List” since my kids were small, since I was sure I hadn’t done a single motherhood thing right all year. The list assured me otherwise.

At some point, I began to make an “I Did It List” for my writing life. The idea was—still is!—to pause and take note of all the small things, big things, and in-between things I could say I finished, learned, tried, succeeded at, explored, completed, was challenged by, overcame, and took part in over the year.

By design, the list is not (only) about what got published or where, what I earned, what job or gig I nailed. It’s wider, and deeper, or in some cases, shallower than that. An “I Did It List” for writers, I’ve always sensed, has to include and acknowledge so many other things that happen across an entire year, stuff that counts. The things we do—sometimes without our even stopping to realize it—that keep us growing, learning, and developing as writers.

I write my "I Did It List" without reference to the list of intended goals from the previous January. This kind of list-making isn’t about accountability or productivity, but about acknowledgement and recognizing what makes a writing life year in broader terms.

Since that first post, I’ve been asking my blog readers to consider privately writing their own “I Did It Lists” and many folks have let me know that it was an eye-opening, gratifying experience. Some have shared their lists publicly (though that’s not a criteria or even the point). I I love the wild range of items various writers have listed. Here’s a small sample:

 . began researching more publication markets and then kept track of submissions 
. finally stopped putting two spaces after sentences
. tried a new genre
. was a beta reader for a friend’s manuscript
. organized a writers group because none existed nearby
. read lots more than usual
. started, and sustained, a new early morning writing routine
. saved up and finally went to that conference
. published first (poem, short story, reported feature)
. cleared a spot for a writing corner
. took a writing class online
. taught a free writing class to senior citizens
. submitted beyond the comfort zone
. wrote and placed first book review
. found a social media home and began promoting work in a way that felt good
. filled out that MFA application
. ripped up that MFA application
. got re-started and kept in motion on a big writing project that had been stalled
. tried new software 

As writers, we are too quick to dismiss our small(er) accomplishments, the small steps or steady strides that carry us forward toward larger goals. Especially at this time of year, we may be tempted to focus on what we didn’t finish, didn’t get done, didn’t accomplish—and then shoot straight to a new must-do list for the coming year, one that too often smacks of recrimination.

First, let’s pause to look back and take note of the ways we’ve already begun moving in the direction of our dreams. The list is a way of noticing ourselves as do-ers.

A writer’s “I Did It List” is a clear reminder that there isn’t just one goal, one imperative, one project or avenue of development, or only one fun and enriching writerly thing to accomplish. My past lists remind me of what brought me fulfillment, of the new creative people who came into my life, and how I added to my skills, confidence, and understanding of why I write after all. 

So, here’s your invitation to write your own “I Did It List”. Find fifteen quiet minutes before January 1, 2018, grab a piece of lovely paper and your favorite pen, or open an inviting new blank page on your screen, or find the ideal place in your bullet journal. 

Write across the top, My Writer’s I Did It List, 2017. Go ahead. Take the pause. Pat yourself on the back. You can even get started by listing just one “I Did It List” item in comments here, so we can have a collective “We Did It List”!

While you’re at it, or after you’ve done your own list, I’d love if you would share a link to this post, and encourage your other creative friends to make their own “I Did It List”.


 Images: Red pen - Flickr/CreativeCommons-Phing.; Woman writing - Flickr/CreativeCommons-RoryMacLeod;  list-maker - free clip art.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- December 8, 2017 Edition

> Do you love "Best books of 2017" lists? Then check out this compilation of ALL the lists, conveniently linked. Largehearted Boy has got you covered. (Fair warning -- you need time for this list of lists!)

> If you missed it, here's video coverage from the National Book Awards. (via NPR)

> Staying with NPR for a moment, have you checked out their Books Concierge app? Especially this guide to their pick of top books for 2017.

> One of my pet editing peeves is telling, then showing; or showing, then telling; or (horrors!), telling, showing, and then telling again. Allison K. Williams has a cure for that, and related ailments, over at the Brevity Blog.

> I had fun sending in my own 13-word love story, when the New York Times' Modern Love column put out a call for them earlier this fall (to celebrate 13 years of ML). Mine didn't get selected, but these did.

> Aminatta Forna, in the New York Review of Books, tells of the seemingly unending fallout from publishing a family memoir.

> Finally, I'm pleased to be included in Booksie's new list, Top 100 Writing Sites 2017, especially since I'm sharing the honors with so many bloggers and websites I respect.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Memoir Book Report, Part V: Weathering the Query & Manuscript Submission Cycle, from Confusion to Contact to Contract

Fifth in a series, following Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss, from manuscript to published book (University of Nevada Press, May 1, 2018). Find the rest of the series here.

Once I got a publication date, other writers began to ask: How long did the submission process take? What was it like? How did you find your publisher?

The short, pithy answers: Eleven months. Hell. Not the way I thought.

That’s handy shorthand, but hardly helpful. Here’s the longer story, the one from which you might glean some helpful hints.

I first thought I might have a book percolating in 2012, when I realized that many of the essays I was getting published, might add up to…something. Quite a few were connected thematically around my father’s death, and I thought if I wrote a few more, voila -- linked essay collection. (Can I over-emphasize how common this thinking is among essayists—and how often wrong-headed?) I tried to get that one published but eventually realized it had to be transformed into a more traditional memoir. (In a future post I’ll detail the essays-to-memoir process, so let’s skip ahead to April 2016, when I had a polished memoir manuscript.)

I am a fan of traditional independent and boutique literary presses and university presses, many of which accept non-agented submissions. I had already been compiling a spreadsheet of such publishers, organized first by those I most desired (because they’d published books I admired), and those that seemed most logical (given the book’s thematic elements). 

I noted any special submission calls, possible connection/recommendation, contests and open/closed submission periods, and finally, but not incidentally, any hunches I had. Next—because I so love a spreadsheet—I cross-referenced what each required initially, usually some combination of query letter, synopsis, proposal, sample chapters, the entire manuscript, marketing plan, author bio.

From April through January, I marched down my list, garnering both lightning-fast rejections as well as several requests for chapters, and a few for the whole manuscript. Result: slower rejections. Sure, some were personal, from editors who seemed genuinely to have read and thought carefully about the work.

Still, no is no.

Over those 10 months, I scratched some publishers off my list—they shuttered operations or their lists shrunk; some seemed less likely candidates after more careful study; sometimes I simply decided they wouldn’t want my book for some random reason which now seems silly. At the same time, the list grew as I discovered new-to-me publishers. What is it that we say about hope springing?

Along the way, I tinkered with the idea of seeking an agent—mostly because the advice of a book coach I’d consulted two years before, still resonated: there was nothing to lose and quite possibly something enormous to gain. About once a week, I spent time researching agents I might query—sometime. A small list emerged, tucked into another spreadsheet.

By the end of January, my energy was flagging, but I realized I had not made enough effort querying university presses. I had at least a dozen on my list I’d be thrilled to be published by. They all wanted a full proposal or some combination of the elements of a proposal, and while I’d written one, I kept tinkering, never sure it was right. Finally, I started sending it out.

By mid-February the full manuscript was under review at two boutique publishers, a more commercial press, and one university press. I’d gotten to this stage before—and then heard no. And sent out more queries, sample chapters, hopes.

That’s when I glanced out my window late one dark, cold Thursday afternoon, and noticed the snow. So much snow. A big storm coating New England to Virginia. Suddenly all the Facebook posts I’d seen from writers cancelling trips to theAWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference in Washington, D.C, made sense.

I hadn’t planned on going. But suddenly I had a thought: all those cancellations must mean the conference headquarters hotel would have a lot of available rooms. I was only a four-hour drive from D.C., and my four-wheel-drive SUV—and I, who once lived in Syracuse—could easily handle the lingering snow in the forecast.

By 5 a.m. the next morning, I was on the New Jersey Turnpike, heading south.

Typically, when I go to a conference, I have an agenda—connect with this editor, meet that publisher, make IRL friends with Facebook writer buddies, take notes at Famous Writer’s presentation, go to Other Famous Writer’s reading. Network. Pitch. Buy discounted journals. Get books signed. I’m usually exhausted even before I put on my nametag.

As I drove, I realized I had no plan—and that felt great. I had not studied the schedule, didn’t know who would be in the exhibit hall, who was reading where or when. My only agenda was to find friends, drop in at panels that seemed promising, maybe wander the book fair.

Ah, the book fair: a cavernous space (about three football fields?) where hundreds of tables beckoned, where friendly literary folks were promoting, selling, and giving away journals and books, touting other writing conferences, offering free trials of software, sharing the virtues of MFA programs, reading series, residencies.

I spent most of my book fair time happily meandering, spontaneously connecting in person with journal and anthology editors who’d published my work, finding new things to read, tossing swag into my tote.

At some point, I realized some publishers and university presses still on my list were there. I noticed that since I wasn’t in I-Must-Complete-My-Agenda mode, my usually nervous chatter disappeared. Instead of trying to sell myself, and by extension, my manuscript, I was only making new friends in the writing world.

Several asked me to send the manuscript when I got home. Others said it wasn’t right for them. Somehow, I had the same reaction to both outcomes: okay! I simply continued wending my may through the exhibit hall.

Finally, in the last 20 minutes of the final day, vendors were packing up their booths—and my tote was swelling because they were handing out free books so as not to incur return shipping costs. I noticed a man packing up, a welcoming smile on his face. We began chatting, about how much our feet hurt. About the conference. He asked something—I can’t remember what—and I began to tell him about my manuscript. In my mind, we were just having a conversation. Two tired writing world comrades at the end of an exhausting weekend.

At some point though, when I mentioned that the story takes place partly in New Jersey, and partly in Las Vegas, he pointed to the banner above his head: University of Nevada Press. Nevada, you know, home to Las Vegas.

Justin Race, director of UNV Press, introduced himself, and invited me to send him the first few chapters when I got home. He liked what he read, and asked for the full manuscript. By March 22, I had an offer. Two hours later, one of the other publishers who had the full manuscript phoned to make an offer too.

I realize that this part of the story makes it all sound so easy—bump into someone at a conference and the rest is publishing kismet. I assure you, nothing about bringing this memoir to that point was easy.

The thing is, I was ready. The manuscript had been revised and revised and polished. I’d researched and prepared query/submission materials. My spreadsheet tells the plodding, painstaking backstory of those 11 months (and before that, the submission process of the book’s previous incarnation).

What happens when you’ve been hearing no for a long time and in one afternoon, you hear yes—twice? After the elation, I mean? You get confused, that’s what. You wish you had an agent after all…

I’ll pick up from there in the next Memoir Book Report post, sharing how, over the next week, I found an agent, weighed offers, and said—yes!

Images: Snow-Flickr/CreativeCommons-JimThePhotographer. All others, royalty-free clip-art.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Guest Blogger Stephanie Urdang on the Differences between Writing Her Own Memoir, and Writing Someone Else’s Memoir

Occasionally a writer I meet at a conference (or online) confides that it’s hard to find other writers where they live. I have no idea what that might be like: the part of northern New Jersey where I live might be dubbed Writerville. Stephanie Urdang lives here too, though she was born in Cape Town, South Africa. Her memoir, Mapping My Way Home: Activism, Nostalgia, and the Downfall of Apartheid South Africa will be published this month. She is also the author of two books on Africa, including And Still They Dance: Women, War, and the Struggle for Change in Mozambique. Stephanie is currently working on a book with a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide (forthcoming in spring 2019).

Please welcome Stephanie Urdang

It took me about ten years – but who’s counting – to complete my memoir, Mapping My Way Home. It is taking me about one year to write a book with a survivor of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, who was eleven at the time.
            The first book is my story, my history, my memories. It charts the events on the international stage -- in which I was a participant or close observer -- that contributed to the end of apartheid. In the process of writing it, sub-themes raised their heads and demanded space as leit-motifs: the sense of home, the nagging of nostalgia, the concept of exile, all interlinked.

            The second book is Gustave Mukurarinda’s harrowing but courageous story. It is his story, his history, his memories. I am writing it in close collaboration, in the mode of creative nonfiction. We are co-authors.   I am the writer. But he is the storyteller.

            My memoir was my first sortie into creative nonfiction. It was a learning curve. I had to tap into a more literary style of writing, freeing myself to explore more evocative and lyrical ways to bring a scene to life, to describe a context. I had to rein in my tendency toward streams of consciousness that sent my narrative veering off course; I had to subdue, no exorcise, an inner voice that would exclaim “Who the f*#k I am to write about my life!”.  I had to learn to scale the inevitable writer’s blocks that told me I was incapable of doing justice to this project.  And I had to allow myself to relish, in the moment, the highs when my writing was flowing and it felt right.

Writing my own memoir provided basic tools for writing the Rwanda book, which is still in draft.  But writing a memoir in collaboration is a very different undertaking, although some of what I had practiced in my own memoir could be applied: forgoing my first-instinct journalistic style and adopt a more literary style;  thinking more intentionally about craft;  taking a critical scene remembered in just a few snippets, and fleshing it out, completing with dialogue; transforming an often fabulous but too lengthy anecdote or scene and trimming it to size so that it doesn’t dominate.

            Writing in collaboration is another learning curve entirely. From it I can tease out a few lessons that for me were “musts”.

The need for trust. Without mutual trust and respect the collaboration will founder. In our case, trust began some ten years ago. I had established a small US-based NGO, Rwanda Gift for Life, that partnered with African Rights, in Kigali. The project supported women who had been raped during the genocide and were living with AIDS. Gustave was on the staff of African Rights and acted as my interpreter when I visited Rwanda. We spent many days together. Later, he stayed at my New Jersey home for a few weeks on his way to Canada where he now lives. Once we began working together, I could appreciate that more than friendship was needed. Without a deep sense of mutual trust, a writing project such as ours could not move forward. There are times when this trust is tested. When he doesn’t approve of the way I am casting a scene, when he thinks the narrative is veering in the wrong direction, we are able to discuss, and where necessary, come to a compromise. We move on, knowing that the next glitch will be met with the same mutual respect, the same trust.

            Need for clarity about scope.  There should be as few surprises as possible. We made our expectations clear from the beginning, including the audience, the writing process, the deadlines. Before I began to record his story, we talked about the nature of creative nonfiction, how my intent was to produce a narrative that reads like fiction. We agreed the book would target a young adult readership, while also appealing to adults. Based on this understanding, and our lengthy interviews, I drafted three sample chapters. Gustave liked how I was conveying his story, how I was portraying his voice. Only after this did we feel confident moving forward. We agreed on the publisher’s terms and both signed the contract. We could begin in earnest.

            Accept that this is not the writer’s story.  Even with the best of intentions, it’s too easy to get carried away, and begin to think that the book is the writer’s alone, given the thought and hard work that goes into drafting it. I had to be careful not to imprint myself onto the story, and to stay true to Gustave’s voice. Ultimately every word is to be approved by him, it is his story, his family’s story, not mine.
            Accept criticism without defensiveness.  There were times when, as a westerner, even though I grew up in South Africa, even though I have written widely and for decades on Africa, I discovered that I was not as sensitive to Rwandan culture as I would have presumed. I made assumptions, or used language that caused him discomfort. I tended to pride myself that I wouldn’t fall into such traps. I did. He pointed them out politely when he deserved to be annoyed.

For example, cows are central to Rwandan culture. They are revered. I described Gustave’s father’s herd as containing Jerseys, Friesians, and “skinny African” cows. I recalled seeing cows that were, well, skinny. But this is no benign, neutral term. It was an insult. It reflects western bias. I apologized when he pointed it out. I was able to laugh at myself; he was able to laugh at me. Another similar lesson: I created dialogue between his brother and mother that was inappropriate to Rwandan culture where children were expected to be polite and respectful of adults and not assume to join in adult conversation unless invited. When he points out the error of my ways, all I feel is relief. It allows me to feel safer in my role as writer of his story, knowing that I will be challenged when I don’t get it right. This too reflects trust.

            Figuring out structure.   Structure can be a real challenge for memoir writers.  There is a life-time of material to draw on, so much that seems vital, but in the end really isn’t, that getting the flow and arc can be daunting. There is a deep emotional connection. But writing someone else’s story means the writer comes to the project from a distance and can discern the narrative’s scaffolding earlier on.  In my case, this process began soon after Gustave’s stories poured out during our many hours of skype interviews and I became energized by the twists and turns of this action-packed narrative. The story pulls me along without me being stuck trying to see the wood for the trees.  And so I am less encumbered to push the story forward, even as sometimes it brings me to tears.

            I have come to see, that when a memoir is written in collaboration, the story teller is the one to give birth. The writer is the midwife.  
Note: If you too are local to Writerville, you can catch Stephanie at Watchung Booksellers (Montclair) onThursday evening, Nov. 30, at 7 pm, and further afield, and at Powerhouse (Brooklyn), on Wednesday, Nov. 29 at 7 pm.

Stephanie would be delighted to answer any reader questions left in the comments over the next week or so. She’d also love to give one of my blog readers a signed copy of her book. Enter by leaving a comment by Sunday, Dec. 3. [Must have a U.S. postal shipping address.]

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