Tag Archives: writing life
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People Are Capable at Any Time

20 May

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Let Yourself Be Gutted

6 May

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I Discovered a Thriving Literary Community as an American Writer in Paris (Guest Post)

1 May

I’m excited to publish this guest post about the Paris literary community by my writer friend Norma Jaeger Hopcraft, the author of The Paris Writers Circle and blogger of In Search of the American Dream. If you’ve been following me for a while now, you know I’ve written about the artist and literary community in Paris on a number of occasions, including my posts on the Surrealist movement and the The Beat Hotel. Norma reports back from her time living as a ex-pat writer in Paris, showing that the Paris literary community is still thriving today. If you’re looking to take a writing sabbatical abroad, she provides a plethora of resources for writers seeking literary community in Paris.

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When I moved to Paris one July recently, I arrived on a Thursday, took Friday to catch up with myself (I didn’t have to hurry—I had at least one year in Paris ahead of me—yes, be jealous!). On Saturday I launched myself upon the City of Light.

 

I took the Metro to the Eiffel Tower, explored the Parc du Champs-de-Mars at its foot, was offered replica Eiffel Towers in six sizes and colors by wandering, thin African young men. Then I headed for the Place des Vosges. On foot. On a hot day. When I got to the Place, I lay on my back on the grass, like a hundred other people, and gathered my forces around myself. I was 3,000 miles from home and did not have money to fly back and see a familiar face. I was on my own, knowing nobody in the entire city. In the country. In all of Europe.

 

I had found when I arrived on Thursday that my landlady, Martine, whom I first met via Skype, spoke great English. She went out of her way that first day to make me comfortable in my studio apartment in the ground floor of her home. I was famished when I arrived on her doorstep, had no Euros in my pockets. I asked her what I could do to get something to eat – I had no idea where a grocery store was.

 

I’ll never forget – she offered me the steak that she planned to cook for herself and her visiting son a few hours later. I was deeply moved but asked her to take me quickly to the nearest grocery store. I bought some pre-cooked chicken thighs and salad. Martine paid for them because my debit card didn’t work. I paid her back in Euros within the hour.

 

Her two nieces, Christelle and Daphné, lived in Martine’s house, in bedrooms upstairs. They were great 20-somethings who welcomed me and opened their hearts to me in the type of soul-friendship that’s a rare experience in the U.S.

 

Okay, so, in the Place des Vosges, laying on the grass, I had three faces I knew in Paris. I had a place to live. I had enough food. What did I need next?

 

Well, I was in Paris on a creative writing sabbatical. It was a gift to myself, not related to a university or artists’ residency. So I needed a circle of writers, incisive critiquers, who could help me improve my memoir. Finishing it was my goal for the year.

 

On that sunny Saturday in late July, I lay on the grass in Place des Vosges and prepared to meet my first Paris writers circle. The group was called Paris Lit Up, and I met them in a hot café where I trembled to purchase a Perrier. It bought me my seat in the café, but it nearly busted my tiny budget.

 

It was my first experience of English-speaking expat writers meeting in Paris. People in the critique group came from all over – Iowa, Barcelona, Berlin. We critiqued each other’s work, laughed over it, and then I went “home,” wherever that is, exhausted. When I got there, Martine fanned herself and said, “It’s so ‘ot.”

 

Two months went by with Paris Lit Up as my only writers’ circle, and then a Meetup popped up, to be held in the moderator’s Paris apartment. I was curious to see her space, and besides which, it sounded like such a nice gathering. “Meet, eat, and critique our work,” the description said. Eat together. Hmmm. That would form nice bonds, I thought, and I signed up.

 

Author Hazel Manuel led the Meetup, which still meets and is called Paris Scriptorium. People once again were from all over. Haze was from London by way of Wales and living full time in Paris. Ruth was British, married to a Frenchman. Kat was Russian, finishing a Ph.D. in English literature at the Sorbonee. Cris Hammond was an American living on a péniche (a barge) on the Seine. He’d written a book about traveling on it all over France’s 5,000 kilometers of canals and rivers. It’s funny. I loved it.

 

I ditched writing the memoir – so difficult to go back into all that pain – and wrote a novel instead, The Paris Writers Circle. It’s about four writers—four creative egos—who undergo dark days in the City of Light. Haze’s group critiqued it over the course of the year. The warmth of the bonds was fantastic, the talent for critique outstanding, and I’m still in touch with many of the participants today.

 

Then another Meetup popped up: The Paris Writers Group. It’s still meeting in a café and still running. After I left Paris, a member of Haze’s group, Graham Elliott, started a new Meetup, Paris Creative Writers. It meets in L’Amazonial Café, on Rue Sainte-Opportune, in the First Arrondissement, on Tuesday afternoons. If you Google “meetups paris writers in English” you’ll find all three groups.

 

I left Paris before I could attend Graham’s Meetup, but I never unsubscribed from his or any of the groups’ email lists. Every time a new meeting comes up, I wish like crazy that I were in Paris and could go.

 

So any writer who goes to Paris has three great critique groups in English (the fourth I’ve mentioned, Paris Lit Up, seems to be on hiatus) that they could attend, immerse in, and find the literary community that will help them improve their writing. They’ll also form bonds of friendship that will last even after they leave and there are thousands of miles between them and their friends’ familiar faces in Paris.

 

So make me jealous! Tell me you’re going to Paris and that you’ll attend any one of these groups! Leave a comment for me here or on my blog. And check out The Paris Writers Circle. One reviewer says, “If you love Paris, you’ll be swept away!” Another says, “Paris comes alive!” and “Outstanding for story appeal, character appeal, and character development.” Enjoy! And get to Paris!

August and Everything After

10 Aug

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It’s August. How did that happen? This summer seems to have flown by. What do I have to show for it? A faded sunburn. An outdoor theatre experience. A few trips out to the boroughs, where it’s much more pleasant to dine al fresco. A writing intensive that resulted in a couple more chapters of my memoir written. But have I lived a life worthy of a new memoir?

Have I seized the day? Have I made it to the Met to see the rooftop installation? Have I stuck my toes into the cold waters of the Atlantic? Have I rode the Wonder Wheel? Have I packed my bags and jetted off to an exotic location? No. It feels like most days I have been bogged down with freelance work. Bogged down with obligations. Bogged down with emotions. Bogged down with rain.

It’s so easy to lose track of time. The older I get, the faster time flies.

In 1993 Counting Crows put out August and Everything After. The album is perhaps the most influential album on my life. My friend lent me the album, and I played it on my walkman over and over and over and over. I remember sitting in the car while my family shopped at a gardening store and just listening to the album on repeat. The melancholy lyrics spoke to my teenaged self. The album got me into the literature of Saul Bellow, who became one of my favorite authors. Years later, a friend in college and I bonded over our adoration of the album. Sometime later, another friend and I went to see the Counting Crows in concert with the Goo Goo Dolls. Years after that, a boyfriend put one of the songs on a mixtape for me. Then years after that, another boyfriend also liked Counting Crows. The years pile up. More memories get made.

And now it’s August and I’m wondering what the “Everything After” is….

 

How to Get an Editor’s Attention

14 Oct

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The other day I wrote about John Freeman’s new literary magazine, Freeman’s. I’d started that blog entry as an introduction to an article he’d written for Electric Literature, but it got unwieldy. At least in blogging terms. Internet readers like their posts pithy!

In “Anatomy of a Discovery: How a Literary Magazine Finds New Writers,” Freeman dives into the editorial selection process. In short, he say editors:

“Read the slush. Tell the ones we meet to try. Listen to a writer’s supporters.”

The essay reveals that sometimes it’s through meeting someone at a booth at AWP and oftentimes, it’s through the recommendation of an MFA writing instructor.

It’s an insightful article that shows the importance of networking, attending high-profile literary events, and enrolling in the right MFA program (that is, one where the instructor’s are well-connected) being such a standout writer that your writing professor is willing to mention your name to their editor.

As an introvert, I found hope in this sentiment from Freeman:

Fatin, who had seemed so shy in person and on email, was not at all shy on the page. She moves swiftly in and out of four or five different characters points of view like it was nothing, like it was what she was for.

If you want to get published, read the full article here.

You might also enjoy my blog posts:
Keep in Touch with Your Alumni Network

Speed Networking with Eventsy

So You Want to Be in Publishing

Five Tips for How to Promote without Selling Out

Making the Most of My Writing MFA

Also! Next month, I’m slated to speak on the panel “Lessons Learned” about my experience publishing at BinderCon.

Friday Links: Breathe In, Breathe Out

8 Nov

Oh, what a week, what a week. It seems like so many people I know are going through difficult times right now, myself included. I think this weekend we could all use a little nurturing. Here are a couple links to take you into what is hopefully a restful and enjoyable weekend:

Iconoclastic Writer penned a post entitled “Memory Babe: a writing exercise inspired by Jack Kerouac.” It’s an old post, but I think being in tune with our senses and learning to write resonate detail can be meditative

Sometimes just looking at beautiful, far-off lands makes me feel like I can breathe a little more

In an effort to drink less coffee (and ahem stronger drinks) and more tea, I bought a delicious champagne rose tea from Mitsua in New Jersey a few weeks ago

I’m also excited to try the new Teavana that opened up on the Upper East Side — it’s one of Oprah’s favorite things!

My doctor recommended this Upper East Side restaurant to me

I’ve been missing my mom a lot lately, which has made me crave macaroni & cheese, both a comfort food and one of her specialties. I might have to check out one of these places

I’ve been embracing my homebody side these days and reading and rereading the interior decorating magazine Domino — I’m so glad they’re back!

I like to light a candle when I write, and I see that Bath & Bodyworks — my favorite place to buy candles — is having their candle sale

Paul and I are holding a contest where you could win a one-of-a-kind tape that Carolyn Cassady personally gave to Paul. You can find the details and enter (or just vote for your favorite) on the Facebook page for Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”

 

 

Writing Wednesday: Choosing the Right Writing Tools

25 Sep

Alison Nastasi recently posted a great article on Flavorwire entitled “The Writing Tools of 20 Famous Authors.” Critics have long had a disproportionate fascination with Jack Kerouac’s implementation of the typewriter, and I commend Nastasi for noting Kerouac’s use of notebooks.

A Columbia friend of Kerouac’s used to always carry along a little notebook, and Kerouac picked up the practice from him. In fact, his notebooks became so important to him that one of his girlfriends accused him of caring more about taking notes on what was happening around him than actually living life. When I interviewed Kerouac’s Lowell friend Billy Koumantzelis, he mused that Kerouac was always jotting down notes in his hometown bars. As he told me this, the intonation suggested he thought Kerouac was a bit eccentric in his writing habit. In Burning Furiously Beautiful, Paul and I go into more detail about Kerouac’s use of notebooks because it’s an important aspect of his development as a writer.

Truman Capote famously quipped that Kerouac was merely typing, and indeed typewriters are important to understanding Kerouac’s editorial process. His father was a printer so Kerouac grew up accustomed to printing technologies and was a masterful typist. His L.C. Smith and Underwood typewriters allowed him to spill out a mad rush of words, capturing the speed of the highway. These words and ideas, however, were culled from his notebooks.

It’s important for writers to find the right tools for them. Some authors commit their best works directly into their laptops. They are used to composing emails, and typing on the computer is more natural than writing longhand. Other writers, however, find that starting their first draft in a Word document only results in stilted text, as they are too quick to rely on shorthand, thanks to all the time they spend on Twitter. For many writers, a combination of different media work best, as they find the ease of cutting and pasting helpful to their editing process once they’ve gotten a first draft done in a notebook.

For me, personally, it depends on what type of writing I’m doing. If I’m writing a blog post, I indefinitely type it directly into the computer. Blogging isn’t my best writing. I care more about the content than the style when I blog.

If I’m writing research-heavy nonfiction, even then I will often write the majority of it on the computer, as I find it helpful to be able to keep my notes together and play with the placement of quotes. If I hit a wall, I’ll print out the work and mark it up with pen.

For memoir writing, though, I enjoy writing with ink in a notebook or even just a loose-leaf piece of paper. It feels more intimate to me, like I’m writing in my diary or writing a letter to a friend. I do a lot of my editing even with paper and pen.

When I was a teenager, I sometimes wrote on an electric typewriter. I think there was a part of me that had romantic literary notions associated with typewriters. I loved the click-clack of the keys. As an adult, I still see the value of writing on a typewriter. It is too easy to hit the delete key and to play with the order of paragraphs on the computer when starting a draft. Good drafts are often the ones where we don’t censor ourselves, where we commit words to the paper for a good long while before we look at them again and decide what stays and what goes.

Every writer needs to find what works best for them. Sometimes it’s a matter of trial and error. Sometimes it helps to shake up the routine every once in a while.

What are your favorite writing tools?

 

You may also be interested in:

Overarching Writing Tips from Writers from Big Sur: Don’t Censor Your First Draft

I Just Give Myself Permission to Suck

If You Miss a Beat, Create Another

Today’s the Day

 

Writing Wednesday: 10 Reasons Memoirists Should Make Time to Keep a Diary

28 Aug

I wrote recently about how Jack Kerouac kept a dream journal and have been blogging a lot about social media. In a recent Salon article, Michele Filgate wonders “Will social media kill writers’ diaries?: Now Facebook and Twitter are business necessities, they may be losing writers’ journals. Is something lost?”

Filgate writes that authors’ personal diaries offer a key into their literary development and intentions. She says authors’ social media posts can do the same thing, but that it’s not as authentic:

Even if there is a level of acting involved in authors who use social media, it isn’t anything new. Brian Morton (author of “Starting Out in the Evening” points out: “I’ve read that Tolstoy used to keep two diaries, one that he left lying around for other people to read, the other a more intimate record for himself alone. I think self-exposure on social media is probably like the diary we leave out for others. There’s probably always an element of performance in it, even when it seems most naked.”

The pressure to build a platform and use social media is real for authors. Finding time to write isn’t always easy to begin with, but not it’s a constant juggle between writing (and researching, editing, and pitching) and social media (blogging, tweeting, facebook-ing, and pinterest-ing). In addition to big writing projects, many writers are also taking on small projects, like writing articles for various lit mags.

Diary keeping is last on my literary to-do list, and I miss it! Not only do I miss it for personal reasons, but I miss having a record of what I was going through and what I was feeling at various points in my life. Especially as a memoirist, I think it’s essential to keep a diary.

Here are

  1. It is a log for when and where we were on exact days
  2. It reminds us of precise events in our life
  3. It reminds us of little details that we forget over time
  4. It is a more accurate record of our emotions than our social media entries
  5. It is a raw space to create
  6. It’s a reminder of our growth in life
  7. It’s a reminder of our literary accomplishments
  8. It’s a place to dream and make goals
  9. It’s a good way to warm up our writing muscles
  10. Technology changes over time, so having a tangible diary preserves our day-to-day thoughts

How do you juggle journal-keeping with your other writing and social media? How has keeping a diary helped your writing?

 

The Writerly Blog Hop

3 Apr

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Huffington Post columnist and Burnside Writers Collective colleague Emily Timbol invited me to join a blog hop organized by writer Kirsten Oliphant of the wonderfully titled blog I Still Hate Pickles. You may remember that I participated in The Next Big Thing Blog Hop last year. I kind of feel like they’re the chain letters of the blog world and am infinitely curious who’s in my six degrees of separation.

Kirsten says in her “about me” section on her blog that she doesn’t like rules, so it should come as no surprise that she gave me and the other blog hoppers some general guidelines but told us we didn’t have to follow any set format or answer every question. Since I’m one of those creative types that tends to actually like rules (blame the editor side of my brain), I am taking a literal approach to the blog hop and answering her questions one by one.

 

What makes you (or makes a person) a writer?

A while back there was a funny meme going around called “What People Think Writers Do,” which shows just how relevant it is to discuss what makes a person a writer. There are all sorts of writers—some are political journalists, some write children’s books, some have their books turned into films, some are hobbyists. I don’t think it’s fair to place absolute judgment on who qualifies as a writer. There are many poets and fiction writers who only became famous late in life or even after death. Is a little girl writing in a diary a writer? What if I tell you her name is Anne Frank? Is a doctor who writes poetry on the side a writer? What if his name is William Carlos Williams? Okay, but what if that doctor is a career oncologist who writes nonfiction about cancer? Does it make a difference if his name is Siddhartha Mukherjee and he won a Pulitzer Prize for The Emperor of Maladies? Even if he never writes another book again? Is a blogger a writer? Is a grant writer a writer? Is someone a writer just because they have to write emails at work? Is there a difference between being a writer and writing? I wouldn’t say that whether someone is published or not or whether someone earns money or not means they are or are not a writer, but I would suggest that being a writer, in the sense of it meaning more than someone who occasionally writes their name on a check or writes a grocery list, means being intentional. This could mean being intention in carving out time for writing or being intentional in the selection of words, but not necessarily so: William S. Burroughs, for instance, used a cut-up technique that displaced authorial syntax yet he is still considered a writer.

So do I have the right to call myself a writer? Well, my name has appeared on book covers across the country and the New Yorker and the Paris Review have mentioned my writing. Then again, I don’t live off my writing—I didn’t even make a thousand dollars off my writing last year—and most people have never heard of me. I call myself a writer because even when I’m not writing I am thinking about writing.

 

Why is it sometimes hard to fess up to being a writer?

There are two big reasons why I sometimes have a difficult time admitting I’m a writer. The first is that when I introduce myself as a writer to people, they automatically ask who my publisher is—and I mean even people who aren’t in the industry suddenly want to know who the gatekeepers who let me through are or want some sort of proof that validates me as more than just the (in their mind) dreaded hobbyist. I feel like it’s like saying I’m a woman, and then someone asking who my gynecologist is. For the record, Barnes & Noble and HarperCollins Publishers have published books containing my writing. The truth, though, is that I sometimes don’t feel comfortable confessing to being a writer because I haven’t written, or published, a full-length book by myself—yet.

The second reason I don’t always like confessing that I’m a writer is because I am an editor. I personally feel that these two callings work well together, but I have noticed that people in publishing houses tend to think that the only reason I am an editor is because I’m trying to get published. I wish I was that savvy! The truth is that I began a career in book publishing because I love working with words. When I was starting out as a proofreader, the idea of being an author seemed like some far-off imagery dream, like being an astronaut. I always had a need to write, and even back then wrote for various publications, but I wasn’t diligently working on my own book. I really love working at a publishing house, seeing a book go from concept to finished product. I love working with authors and helping them achieve their dreams. From my experience, there are a lot of people in the industry who are editors and publishers because they love books and not because they themselves want to be writers. I just happen to be both.

 

How does writing affect your identity or otherwise impact your life?

I tend to view my experiences through the lens of being a writer. When I go to an art gallery, I automatically think that I have to write about the art I saw. When there’s a particularly momentous current event, I feel the need to write it down in my diary. It’s not just a matter of mining life for stories. I process information by writing. I often joke that I don’t really know what I think about something until I write about it.

Being a memoirist has helped me understand my identity beyond being a writer. Agents and editors tell writers that their main characters should never be a writer. But what do you do if you’re a memoirist and your main character is you, a writer? You dig deeper, you don’t allow your writerly self to speak for who you are. When you can’t rely on that shorthand of clichés about being a writer, that fancy wordwork that hides your true identity, you’re left with just yourself. Writing doesn’t just allow me to be myself—it forces me to be myself.

Want to join the blog hop? Answer the questions however you see fit on your own blog and post a link below as well as link to Kirsten’s post.

“My life is not a story,” Wrote the Memoirist

28 Feb

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After reading about how Benjamin Anastas describes his father as “a brooding Greek beatnik” who is “potbellied from lentils and with a beard down to his solar plexus chakra,” I knew I had to read his memoir Too Good to Be True. After all, I write about  Greeks and so-called beatniks. Too Good to Be True is the story of the breakup of his marriage and the dissolution of his writing career.

Its not told in an overtly emotional manner, yet its frankness is almost unsettling. These days we’re used to people baring all when it comes to relationships, but to tell the truth about money? To admit that even though he’d taught at an Ivy League and published in big-name magazines, he had to dig around in couch cushions to come up with money for his son’s dinner? That’s the type of honesty that’s hard to read because you worry he’s sabotaging his career by admitting his writing isn’t going all that well and putting it out there for editors and agents to read without the distance of time.

But isn’t that the struggle of the memoirist? While many critics claim that memoir writing is egocentric, a memoirist must lay down his ego. He must sacrifice self and present the truth. And while a memoirist may be introspective by nature, the beauty of memoir is discovering the truth along with the author.

This section from the chapter “Old Friends” is worth considering in terms of both memoir writing and living life:

How much of our lives do we write, and how much of them are written for us? I’ve been thinking about this problem lately, looking back over the trail that brought me to this place, and reading my progress at every step along the way—as adrift as I have been from the usual compass points, as unaware of my direction—for signs of an author, for the fingerprints left behind by some great invisible hand. My life is not a story. It has never been a story, not for me, not even while I’ve been taking great pains with this testament to tell it truthfully on the page. I am in too deep to call it a story. It hurts too much for me to understand it. But I am trying.

The contents of the book may center around infidelity and a mid-career slump, but the deeper story, the one that Anastas circles around to, is the relationship between parents and children, the relationship he had with his parents and the relationship he has with his son.

If I could request a follow up to Too Good to Be True, I would ask Benjamin Anastas to write a memoir about his childhood.