Saturday, April 26, 2014

Writing in a Voice Not My Own (aka I am not a dude)

Someone recently told me she loved the "voice" of my blog. I thanked her, but I'll admit, I was a little taken aback. In the writing textbooks I studied, as both student and teacher, the concept of voice is all mixed up with several other things, like a writer’s unique way of writing (e.g. her syntax, rhythms, word choice) and with the unique voices of each character, which is of course bound tightly to the story’s point-of-view. All of these things become “voice.”

In this blog, and in the personal essays I’ve published, the “voice” is mine, by which I mean it’s the real me, the way I think and the way I talk with friends. So, having a reader say she liked it made me feel a little bit self-conscious, and saying thanks made me feel a little arrogant, as in, why yes, of course, I have a very nice voice, and have you also seen my elbows? (Hint: They are HOT!)

So, yes, dear reader, here on this blog, this is me, take it or leave it. But, fiction is another beast. Fiction gives writers the chance to try on the voice of someone completely different. At first, this can be a bit scary. Whether you’re a professional writer or not, you’ve probably heard the rule, “Write what you know.” This particular rule stifles a lot of student writers, and they end up writing about other writers, who mostly sit at the computer and gaze out the window (Fun Fact: This action encompasses 3/4 of my own writing time!). They also write characters who drink a lot of coffee, usually in coffeehouses, usually while gazing out the window.

Here's a photo of me on Halloween, as the Publishers' Clearinghouse
Prize Patrol, but don't I look a bit like Alex Trebek?
I think the adage would be better changed to: “Write what you want to know.” Good writers tend to have outsized curiosities. We scrape the surface of a lot of topics in our quests for knowledge, gathering an Alex Trebek-ian list of facts that serve our purposes for a particular scene. Then, we impart this knowledge via our characters.

My two most recently published short stories feature first-person narrators. One, titled “The Adjunct Track” (published in The Rumpus), features an adjunct teacher of English composition who is male and about fifteen years younger than me. Now I, too, have taught comp, and I have been fifteen years younger, but I’ve never been a dude. Another story, "Useful Skills," which you can read here in The Santa Fe Writers Project Journal, features a man with a marketing business who is trying to patch up relationships with his wife and father. The only similarity there is that I had previous jobs in marketing.

In a lovely rejection letter (the lovely ones sometimes break your heart the most...) that I received from a publisher considering my story collection, the editor was impressed at how well I wrote male voices. My first thought was maybe I should look into boosting my estrogen. But then I took the comment for what it was, a compliment, the highest kind, really because it’s much harder to write about someone who's different from you, to inhabit his or her fictional world so completely that you, as author, disappear. Stories like that transport a reader.

Currently, I’m working on a novel with a biracial protagonist. When I started thinking about the book, I was filled with self-doubts about whether I had the right to speak for this character, but the more I thought about it, the more those fears diminished. Of course, there will always be people who say how dare you. I’m thinking here of some of the flak Kathryn Stockett got for “The Help.” But, the world of books would be very boring if writers only wrote about their own lives. Where would all the mysteries go? Do I have to be a murderer to write about one? An Abraham Lincoln re-enactor? A born-again, pro-life crusader? No. And I’ve written from all of their points of view. Can I tell you a secret? That's what makes this job so goddamn fun.

The most important question is not whether you ought to do it, but did you? Did you pull it off? Did you write a good book, or story, or poem, one that readers want to read? One thing I’ve learned over my years of writing is that no one is going to give me permission to pursue any project, to write in a voice other than my own. You simply follow whatever voice it is that leads you, and you tell that person’s story with as much honesty as you can. And, for those times when you really need to get into character, you keep a spare wig and mustache.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Have a Seat in the Naughty Chair!

It's about time I showed you somethin' purdy, don 'cha think? You can either take this post as an example of my latest DIY painted furniture project, or as a caution against getting high on the sweet, sweet halo of power fumes a person is exposed to at her local PTO meeting (I swear I didn't inhale).

So, there I was helping to decorate our neighborhood public elementary school for a Dr. Seuss-themed Right to Read Week, when someone pulls out a fancy cell phone and starts trolling for "ideas" and sees that someone once painted Dr. Seuss quotes and whatnot on a chair (damn you, Internets!), and I'm all like, "I can make you a chair," and someone's like, "Really?" and I'm like, "Oh, sure, why not," and then I realize that it's Friday night, and I haven't eaten dinner, and probably because I'm low on blood sugar, I promised a magical chair by Monday.

Saturday morning, coffee, and then it begins...

Thanks to a nice lady at a local thrift shop, who was willing to break up a set of dining chairs, I scored this elegant lady:

Then, I began studying it. The arms fairly screamed, well, arms. The indentations would make perfect claws. And why not paint the intricate woodwork on the back to look like a hat? I wasn't going to paint book quotes or scenes, as I'm a poor freehand artist, but Seuss would provide my inspiration.

The chair was lightly sanded and primed in day one. Day two started with the reupholstering of the seat, which was a dumb thing to do next, as will soon be revealed. Then, I spent the whole, carpal-tunnel inducing day painting. The red was looking especially streaky. This is the problem with red paint. I love the color, but loath the process of actually putting it on anything.

At this point on Sunday evening, hubs is in the background saying, "It's late, it looks fine," which is a dumb thing for hubs to say because he has known me since before I earned my driver's license, yet this is just this thing we do...hubs trying to urge me not to be a perfectionist and me rolling my eyes. So, I gave it another coat of paint.

Monday morning, I reminded myself that it didn't absolutely have to be there first thing. I really should give it a coat of polyurethane if I wanted the paint job to last (the idea was to use the chair for many years' worth of guest readers and students, not just for this special week). So, I did that.

And then, I looked at the seat, which I'd covered in a turquoise chevron. I had picked this out because I originally planned on a black/white/red color scheme and knew the turquoise would pop. However, after adding yellow to the mix, the cushion looked wrong. Also, why not use faux fur instead?

So, I tore the fabric off, bought new, re-re-upholstered, and screwed the seat back on. It was finally ready to go. And do you know what happened next?

I didn't want to give it away.

Truth is, I've not yet created anything that wasn't meant for my own home. My evil twin (the one who inhales the power fumes) started to whisper to me, tell them you didn't have time, what are they going to do, fire you? you're a volunteer, KEEP the chair..."Where would I put it?" I asked her, but she didn't answer. Even she had to admit I had no spot for this chair.

So, I took the chair to the school, and it provided a cushy seat for the tushies of local dignitaries, including the mayor and school superintendent. While it's awaiting its next important function, I heard it has found a spot outside the principal's office. I suspect there's not a more stylish "naughty chair" to be found anywhere.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The DIY Writing Residency

I’ve just returned to Ohio from wonderful Austin, Texas, where I completed a five-day “writing residency” at the house of friends. While there, I managed to draft the first chapter of my new novel, as well as spend much quality time with old buddies, eat empanadas from a food truck, buy a local author’s book from the fabulous BookPeople and soak up some desperately needed vitamin D.

I was in “residence” at a place other than my own home. I did “writing” (lots of it, and it’s not half bad). And so, by my estimation, I completed a “writing residency.” Unlike more traditional residencies, there was no application fee, no recommendation letters to procure, no statement to write about my “artistic vision,” no writing samples at all. And perhaps most importantly, no WAIT for a decision (for six months or even longer) from the esteemed panel of judges. There was also, thankfully, no form rejection letter explaining that there were thousands of entries for a handful of spots.

My residency came about with the realization that I had a hot-off-the-laptop novel outline and could really use some time to get myself immersed in the book, figure out the proper tone, and get the thing off the ground, so that, once home, I could just pick up with the next scene and be on my way. My prep work involved an email to friends I’d been wanting to see, followed by the purchase of a plane ticket. Total cost, approximately $300. Time wasted with applications? Zero.

Now before you think I’m all sour grapes about residencies, let me offer some background. I once completed a traditional residency, at the Vermont Studio Center. It was pre-kids so I was able to get away for a full month, and it was indeed transformative, in that it came at a time when I really needed to reaffirm my goals and status as a writer with other like-minded folks. But I didn’t have a good plan for my work while there, and so, although I ended up producing a lot of pages, in the end it was just a hundred page writing exercise. VSC offered me a fellowship to attend, not a full ride but enough to make it worth my while.

That was a decade ago. Today, I’m in a different place, with my life in general and my writing life in particular. I don’t like wasting time. I’m not interested in resume building, at least not in terms of listing residencies on a CV. I’d much rather impress people with my published work. As a busy parent and very part-time writer, what I most need is time. I know the precise moments during a project when I could use concentrated hours away from home. That’s one of the problems with applying for residencies that won’t happen until far in the future.

And that’s where the DIY residency comes in. Sidenote: Consider the odds of receiving a more traditional residency. The current talk in the writers’ Twitterverse is the “Amtrak Residency.” For those who haven’t heard, Amtrak recently decided to offer 24 writers a ticket for a multi-day trip in a private cabin. The small print explains that Amtrak will choose writers who already have a large social media presence, and those writers will then blog about the fabulosity of train travel. It’s basically free advertising for Amtrak and kudos to them, I guess, for seeing an opportunity, but what amazes me most is the number of writers who have applied (more than 9,000 as of this writing). It’s a train ticket, people.

Some writers might choose to buy their own train, or plane, or boat, or buggy (I live in Amish country) tickets, but that’s often difficult for writers strapped for cash, and most of us are. The DIY Residency doesn’t have to cost you anything. I’ve completed many of them over the years. It’s so, so easy. Just tell all your friends that you are available to house sit or water plants or give Mr. Fluffernutters his thyroid medication…for the use of their dining room table to set your laptop on. You can put a call out right when you’re getting to a critical juncture in a writing project, right when the work hours would most benefit you. Assuming these are local friends, you can spend a few hours, maybe a whole day if you can swing it. Maybe you can even spend a night.

Your friends? They will love that you are taking care of whatever they need taken care of. They will also like feeling they are “supporting the arts” without even opening their checkbooks. A long time ago, artists had wealthy patrons. Now, we have nice friends who give us spare keys. I have three such keys in my possession, and am always open to receiving more. In the past, I have worked in 24- to 48-hour marathon stretches at a house right around the corner from my own. If my family needed me, I could run home in under a minute. But they didn’t need me. And I got tons of distraction-free work done.

If this appeals to you, and you haven’t tried it, don’t wait! If, however, you feel you cannot write unless you have a cabin in the woods, at which, approximately noon-ish, someone will arrive at your door with a recycled paper sack containing your gluten-free, sustainably harvested lunch items, knock quietly, then disappear into the forest so as not to disturb your genius, then you need to apply for a traditional residency (writers…you know which one I’m talking about). If you can make do with much less, you are in luck. Your DIY residency awaits.


Saturday, February 1, 2014

Cravings? What cravings???

Hi Friends,

Just a heads up that I'll be guest-blogging over at the site of best-selling author and psychologist Dr. Susan Albers ( for the entire month of February. It's all part of her Mindful Eating Chocolate Challenge.

Did you know yours truly has a HUGE sweet tooth? 'Tis true. Dr. Albers has given me a very large bag of chocolate, and my job is to eat 1 measly ounce per day, track my cravings, and write about it for her readers, and hopefully, for you, too.

Hope you'll follow along at the Eat Q blog. Thanks!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Most Frequent Piece of Writing Advice I Received in 2013--and Why I'm Ignoring It

In 2013, I took chances with my writing, threw my hat into the air a la Mary Tyler Moore and yelled into the wind with an unusual (for me) joie de vivre, “Markets be damned! I’ll write whatever I want! I’ll write whatever makes me happy!” The result? Good things, dear reader, good things, but a big change for me as well because often, what made me happy in 2013 was writing essays, in addition to my old mainstay, fiction.

Essays are of course a very different beast from short stories or novels. When your mom points out, after reading your short story, that the mother in the piece bore an uncanny resemblance to her and was also really mean, you can claim innocence (it’s fiction, mom). In an essay, when you write about your mom’s penchant for dipping her finger into the ice cream “to make sure it’s okay,” you may not get your regular phone call on Sunday.

But it goes further than potentially upsetting a few friends and family members. Essay publishing, when it’s done online, unleashes a squadron of angry people with fast-typing fingers. And they get upset over the most minor things. Now, I’m not writing essays about our foreign policy. I’m not doing serious journalism here. I’m publishing personal essays, that genre by which a writer has an experience that gets stuck in her craw and decides the only way to get it out is to write about it. The writing itself is highly cathartic for me. Finding an audience for the resulting work, and possibly even getting a little cash money, is a wonderful bonus.

At the beginning of last year, I published an essay lamenting my difficulty finding the time, or desire, to read “serious” fiction since becoming a parent. I was thrilled the piece appeared in a major, online magazine devoted to literary news. Within minutes of the essay going live, I had my first commenter! She began with this: “Mothers are a really dreary boring group of people to talk to…” It got worse from there, until others replied, and soon the commenters were duking it out.
Might I remind you that I write in a closet? Well, I shrunk back into it, closed the door, and closed the site for the rest of the day. But I looked again, of course. By week’s end, there were many very positive comments, way outnumbering the negatives, yet the negatives stuck with me. It was the negative comments that made me pause before accepting an offer to publish an essay regarding the choices we make as parents, which would run both online and in print, in a national church magazine. But, I thought, it’s a church magazine! Surely, no one’s going to be vindictive. Oh reader, never underestimate the meanies in a church, any church.

Friends advised: “You can’t let it get to you.” They suggested I get “a thicker skin.”  (Note: If anyone out there wants to develop a skin-thickening agent, you’ll make millions, from writers alone.) So I tried, for awhile, to develop a Stuart Smalley outlook, to stare into my mirror and say, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” I tried to avoid reading comments altogether, but couldn’t resist. I tried to focus only on the positives and remind myself people will always disagree. I can’t change that. But do you know the other thing I realized I can’t change? The thickness of my skin. And as a new year starts, I’ve also realized, I don’t want to.

My skin is thin, so thin you can clearly see the veins, which are pumping blood to that vital organ that I wear, yes, on my sleeve. I’m always going to be the one who stops in her tracks when the moon is just too beautiful for words, and then I’ll try and find those words. I’m always going to cry at sad movies, songs, pictures. I’ll even cry at happy ones, sometimes harder. And, this too, I’m going to get madder than some people. I’m going to be more competitive. I’m going to feel anger like a vice grip squeezing on my chest. I’m going to explode with pride over my kids. I’m going to stand slack-jawed with wonder at the feats of people and things I admire, down to the feats of the crocuses in my yard reliably sending up their shoots each spring.

I’m going to feel. I’m going to feel deeply. You can call me thin-skinned; you can call me sensitive. Both terms have taken on negative connotations. So, instead call me passionate, with every definition that word holds, with every positive and negative. This is what makes me a writer. If I eliminated this trait, I wouldn’t be able to do what I love. Because it’s passion that brings me to the page each day. It’s having something to say that I can’t express any other way. If that were gone, my writing would be gone, and with that, I believe, my sanity. So, go ahead commenters, say what you will, and I’ll try and remember I’m not really here on the page to make friends, but to say what I have to. This year I pledge to get more comfortable in my thin skin.


Friday, November 22, 2013

Carve that Tofurkey! A Writer Approaches the Grown-up Table

November has been kind to me, even after I went around publicly bad-mouthing it (I’ve pledged myself eternally to October), and given the season, I feel the need to say thank-you, to the editors, fellow writers, family and friends who indulge me in this creative endeavor. This month, I had fiction published in The Rumpus, which has been high on my list of places I would give my left arm to get into (it’s okay, I’m right-handed). The very same week, I had a humor piece published in The Awl, and a couple agents and a couple indie publishers both requested a look at my first novel. (I’m currently working on a second.)

I hear the word “luck” a lot in reference to the publishing biz, mostly by people who are not involved in it or are still newbies. I’ve been around publishing too long (and have the rejection letter stack to prove it) that I don’t believe much in luck. I believe in working hard to constantly improve your game + meeting up with opportunity = something that looks like luck.
"Tony Danza is a Turkey" Tacky Ugly Thanksgiving Sweater Vest - The Ugly Sweater ShopWhen I was starting out, I’d think, oh, all those writers in those big magazines must know somebody. They’ve got an “in” that little old me, in the middle of rural America, with no contacts in NYC doesn’t have. The hard truth is, years ago, I wasn’t getting in because my work wasn’t good enough. But, I just kept writing, because, newsflash, I enjoy it! Seems obvious, but there are many people writing with hopes only to get published, and when they realize how hard that is, they quit. (In the case of The Rumpus story, I’d already gathered 30+ rejections on it over several years, but I kept learning from those and rewriting the story.)

Now I’m not completely na├»ve. I know there are ways to get attention that are based entirely on relationships. If a writer has a relative in publishing or has an MFA prof who recommends her to an agent, for example, then sure, she might get her work looked at more quickly. But the fact is, once you get invited to the dinner, once you’re in the door wearing a vest with an appliqued turkey on it, you better have a seriously good squash casserole if you want to be invited back.

As my publications get more frequent and higher up the perceived chain (meaning the amount of literary cachet that the particular journal or magazine has, not necessarily the number of readers), I’m thankful I’ve been given some great new writing mojo. It feels like I may have finally left the kids’ table, you know the folding table with the wobbly leg out in the hallway? I’d been there coloring on the paper tablecloth with a crayon for a while. But now I feel like I’ve moved into the dining room and taken a seat with some of the writers I’ve admired for a long time. Now, sure, it’s a verrry long table, and I’m way at the end where I can’t really hear anything. And those yummy crescent rolls will all be gone by the time the basket gets down here. And writers who are much more established than me will make me wash the dishes, by hand, because, Grandma’s china. But, I am so thankful for the chair!

This kind of feeling allows me to take even more chances, writing anything I want to, when I want to, without worrying about what will happen to it, whether it will get published, who it’s going to piss off. The pieces I published this month were written with one audience in mind, me, and I wrote them because I enjoyed it. I think at the kids’ table, I was scared of interrupting the grown-ups, of committing some social faux pas. I didn’t want to reveal any of the inappropriate things that I really wanted to write about. The irony is, when a writer just throws all her passion into a project, no matter what it is, that passion finds its way through to readers, and they connect with it, whereas lifeless prose (lifeless because it’s the safe choice, because the writer thinks it’s what she should be writing, not what she wants to write) just can’t connect in that same way.

It’s a little early for resolutions, so let me say my Thanksgiving Motto is: Screw It. What’s the worst thing that can happen if I keep writing any crazy thing that comes to mind? An editor won’t like it? She’ll say No?” Been there. Still here, writing. So, Screw It. And Pass the Potatoes. Please. This kind of recklessness might just lead to even more, and better things. I just might publish that first novel. I just might finish the new one. Hell, I just might drink milk that expired yesterday! But I’m going to write, and I’m going to be ever thankful to the community of writers, past, present and future, who have provided the opportunities, to match up with the preparation, to equal my luck. Someday, maybe I’ll move to the head of the table and carve that Tofurkey myself.


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

How Marcy Got Her Groove Back or…what I learned at my writing retreat

Late on a Sunday afternoon, after a nearly eight-hour drive, I arrived at The Porches in Norwood, Virginia. I met my lovely host, Trudy, got the tour, unpacked my stuff, opened my laptop and stared out the large window in front of my writing desk, which overlooked a porch, and beyond the porch, the mountains. It was then that I noticed several strange, faint noises: a slight breeze rustling the tree leaves, the low hum of my ceiling fan, crows calling in the distance and, somewhere in those endless trees, the low rumble of a train. This glorious quiet—so different from home, filled me with excitement, but also something else…fear. You see there was nothing to do here but write. I’d come all this way, and now it was time to, well, put up or shut up about never having any time to work. A part of me wanted to hop in the car and drive back to Ohio. But I didn’t. I made a cup of tea. I unpacked my milk crate of background reading on topics related to the novel I was here to outline, and I cracked open the first book.

Now nearly a week later, I can’t believe it’s already time to pack up, despite there being so many moments when time went so very slowly. Just this morning, I’ve been watching a leaf katydid on the wicker chair directly outside my window.

It has taken her three hours to move her body into a position from which I believe she might be getting ready to lay eggs. I don’t know much about leaf katydids, though I know she is one, based on a photo in one of my daughter’s books. It’s taking every ounce of my discipline to keep working and not Google leaf katydids, though at some point I probably will, and I’ll learn something new.

Here are some other things I learned during my week of writing solitude:

·         Writing my day’s goals on a notepad with a picture of a fluffy white kitten holding a large ball of yarn makes those goals seem less daunting. (However, I never did accomplish all the daily goals I set out to. That’s okay. Better to aim very high and fall a little short than the alternative.)

·         Silence takes a little getting used to, even for someone like me who really enjoys it.

·         Having a big soft bed just a few feet from my writing area pretty much requires a brief afternoon nap. Naps are underrated. I wish you, and me, and everyone, could incorporate them into our daily lives, no matter what line of work we’re in.

·         Being away from the kids, the hubs, the dog! for more than one night makes me miss them terribly. Then, that feeling goes away, briefly. Then, it comes back. Then, it becomes a sharp ache in my chest when I hear their voices (not the dog’s) on the phone.

·         It’s good to switch roles once in awhile. I now have a better understanding of what it’s like when my husband travels and calls to talk, but I can’t because dinner’s on the stove, the cat just choked up a hairball and the kids are having a swordfight with my best candlesticks. It’s good for the hubs to have the chance to be in that role of traffic controller and witness the challenges of single parenting. And it’s good for my kids to see that mommy, too, loves her work and devotes time to it. I show them essays and stories I’ve published, but they’re a little young to really understand the job of ‘writer.’ They’re also not astute enough to pick up on the fact that it’s kind of weird mommy writes in a closet…

·         Time is relative. An hour or so into my first evening, I realized there was no clock in the room, no clocks anywhere to be found. I like clocks. I have a lot of them at home and as a type-A person, I look at them, often. Of course, my laptop has a clock and my cell phone, and I’d brought my watch, though didn’t plan on wearing it. It’s not as though I couldn’t find out the time, but the fact that it took some effort meant I was free to work with my own internal rhythms rather than the world’s, and this was ultimately rather amazing. When I got tired outlining, I’d switch to reading, then I might send an email (my goal to stay off the Internet was broken within hours…). When I was hungry, I ate. When I was tired, I slept. At home, everything runs on such a tight schedule. At The Porches, it was liberating to follow my own instincts, and so conducive to the kind of free association I was doing with my new book, chasing down ideas to see where they might lead.

·         To piggyback on that idea, here’s perhaps the most important thing I learned—time spent looking out the window is time well spent. Because I have very small chunks of time to write at home, I often feel like I must “accomplish something,” must be able to cross something off my list before time’s up. That works for some projects (e.g. drafting a scene once I already have a tight outline), but it simply does not work when I’m in the planning stages of a big project like this new book. At home, “daydream about possible scenes for the new novel” never made it on the list. There was laundry to do, and that seemed like a better use of my time. Here, daydreaming is encouraged and in fact expected. My mind can come up with all sorts of crazy ideas when I allow it to wander. Also, daydreaming helps that tricky brain of mine to continue working on my novel when I don’t even realize it. For example, after returning my fingers to the keys after watching my friend the katydid for twenty minutes, I found that I’d somehow solved a major plot issue. Miraculous.

Next writing retreat already scheduled—spring in Austin.