Is Your Writing Being Rejected?

Been enduring an unnerving spate of rejections to your writing submissions? You’re not alone. Slide over to the Brevity Magazine blog to read about my own recent experiences submitting my work.

The essay is called Sixth Sense Submissions, or Publishing Blind.

Leave a comment if you can relate. Oh, and I hope you’ll take a look at the enlightening comments left by others. Thank you.

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Who Let the Joy Out? Humph, Humph.

You’ve heard that expression (which always sounded to me like nothing more than an utterly fatuous promise) that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear?

I’d returned from the Muse and the Marketplace writers conference held earlier this month, in Boston, feeling first overwhelmed by the conference itself, then downright paralyzed. For days afterwards, I felt in a daze—my creative faculties on hold. And I suffered a deep unease, as if some vital element of my person was being snuffed out.

I couldn’t blame the conference. I’d been exposed to a lot of valuable experiences and ideas about writing and the writing life. (More on those in a later post.) But it was learning all this stuff, some new, some not, that contributed to a growing discontent I’d been feeling for some time.

Then I came across an essay by Ethan Gilsdorf, whose formidable writing creds bowled me over. (I mention this because I felt anyone with so large a reputation was taking a risk by going public about his failure to work on the writing project that’s called to him for years. At the Muse conference, I’d taken his “Writing the Risky Personal Essay” class. Clearly the man practices what he preaches.)

I couldn’t imagine any blog post speaking to my situation more directly and profoundly. In “This Blog Post is a Pep Talk,” Gilsdorf wrote:

“As writers, we … need to take pleasure in our work…. We need a project … to fall in love with again. The kind of low-pressure, it’s-OK-if-you-fail, writing for the joy of writing project.”

I stared at my computer screen, frozen. That was the poke, the permission I needed. Even though I’m a writing instructor, I’d paid so much attention to other people’s writing rules that I’d discounted my own authentic voice, lost faith in the writing that had gotten me published and garnered kudos and the occasional award in the past, and worst of all, let it stymie my joy in the writing process.

In my early career, I avoided writing classes because I feared they would exert too great an influence over my own style. But as I progressed, I felt I needed more skills in order to advance my writing. But one has to cherry pick what advice to take and what to leave in the orchard, and at some point, what with my extensive business and professional writing and absorbing so much advice from different people and trying to adhere to the rules, peculiar preferences, (and word counts!) of literary magazines and other publications, I no longer felt connected to the writing I was doing, nor did I enjoy the process of producing it.

If I want to regain my joy in writing, I need to refuse to let my writing for money or attempts to win prizes dampen my desire to write from the heart. To recapture joy in writing, I need to carve out time and mental space for the thinking and writing that means most to me, even if it doesn’t get published or isn’t otherwise acknowledged.

Gilsdorf didn’t offer any writing advice. Instead, he did what essayists are supposed to do: explored a personal subject and engaged his audience (primarily) of writers with that exploration.

By the way, for me, the personal exposure in this blog post makes it feel uncomfortably like a risky personal essay.

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More of Life’s Little “Infuriations”

SOW HEADSHOT

A while back I published a list of Life’s Little Infuriations, and followed that with a request that site visitors contribute their own nagging annoyances. (Check the comments on those posts to see what’s irritating others.)

Now, here are some of my latest infuriations. Enjoy the flowers, which have nothing to do with this post, except that they help to keep me more or less sane.

– Jackets without pockets. Where to put gloves? A tissue?

– Ice cold restaurant salads. Ice cold, brick hard restaurant butter.

– Food stores (supermarket, take out joints, etc.) charging the same or higher price for a smaller amount of food.

– Websites with useful or entertaining information, but no Share buttons.

– Websites that require your email address before they show you anything at all. My experience has been with mostly, but not only, home decorating sites. How on earth do you know if those sites will offer anything of interest to you?

ELM BANK ECHINACEA
– Road sings covered by foliage 3 seasons a year.

– Left turning motorists who don’t use their signals, so you’re stuck behind them when you could have gone about your business in the right lane.

– Tiny score boxes on televised baseball games; our screens get larger, their writing smaller.

– While I’m on the subject of sports: The constant chatter by broadcasters on topics unrelated to the game being aired. Also, the intense crushes they and the sports media get on some players. The hapless players seldom live up to all the hype. (Think recent Red Sox rookies, whose last names begin with “B.”)

– Top bed sheets marked “queen size” that are patently too small. They are the same size as those made for a double bed.

Elm Bank Formal Floral Row

Elm Bank Formal Floral Row

Leave a comment if you can relate to these. Or, share your own.

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Contribute Your Little Infuriations

LB-WALKING-225x300A couple of years ago, I wrote a post called Life’s Little Infuriations. I’m working on another one now.

How about submitting your nagging annoyances in a comment here so I can include them in the post?

I know you’ve got them. One might be that your carefully-crafted, open-face sandwich always falls on the floor with the filling face down. Another could be my bugging you all the time to leave a comment—which, not to put to fine a point on it, most of you ignore.

I probably should offer some inducement, say a prize for the best, to get you to contribute your infuriations, but I’m dreaming up a contest for my other site (Stylish Ole Woman), and that’s enough contest creating. Anyway, it’s possible you’ll find that just getting your irritations off your chest and out to the public are reward enough.

Edgeworthia Bush, Smithsonian Garden,  March 2014

Edgeworthia Bush, Smithsonian Garden, March 2014

I doubt if the laws of physics will stop adversely acting on your sandwiches, but perhaps people who are guilty of some sins and slights will read your complaints and change their behavior.

Please tweet and post on Facebook to help me spread the word. Thanks.

While I wait to receive your infuriations, I’ll be working on my next post: Keeping Your Journal Private Might Be Easier Than You Think.

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A Writer Needs Money, a Room, and . . . ?

Virginia Woolf said, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she’s to write fiction.” I’d say one needs an income and peace and quiet to write anything creative.

Corner of my living room

Corner of my living room

But do we scribblers also need Masters of Fine Arts in Writing degrees? Do they give writers an edge?

I was struck to see that nearly a third of the contributors to the nourishing anthology, Why We Write, held MFAs. The book’s subtitle is 20 Acclaimed Authors Discuss How They Do What They Do. How some of them do it is with the help of an MFA.

Granted, Isabel Allende has no college education. Super-successful mystery writer Sue Grafton has the same undergraduate degree that I have: a BA in English Literature. No MFA for either of us. But her father was a writer. That doesn’t guarantee talent, but at least growing up she was exposed to writing as a viable career. So maybe writers need money, a room, an MFA, or parental example.

Last spring, when MFA graduating students at a university near my home read from their work, my husband and I attended the event. Through their program, these writers had gotten the technical know-how that they could weave through or pile atop their natural talent and persistence. (It’s easier to persist with an instructor or mentor at your back, guiding you so that your fragile craft of a story doesn’t zigzag hopelessly on the vast ocean of literary traps.)

In the darkened auditorium, I listened longingly to these students who’d achieved the kind of writing it had taken me pretty much my entire adult life to cobble together on my own.

Those of us without MFAs must put in the necessary autodidactic decades of practice to figure out the techniques by ourselves, or as in my case, with the help of undergraduate and intermittent, but valuable, community based writing courses.

Curious to know if an MFA would have been helpful to my career, I checked the actual courses that comprise the degree.

Rutgers University MFA Program Courses
Personal Essay . . . Techniques for writing autobiographical prose and memoir; strategies for transforming personal material. (This is my genre. Boy, could I have used this help!)
Suspense . . . No matter what the genre, literature relies on certain techniques to manipulate reader interest. This course will examine how authors build suspense and maintain it throughout a narrative. (Don’t all writers need this?)
Memoir . . . This course looks at both recently published and classic memoirs to determine what makes memoir exciting, intriguing, and universally relevant. (Maybe my two memoirs wouldn’t have needed so much rewriting had I written them after taking such a course.)
Truth and Lies: Autobiographical Fiction and Fictional Autobiography . . . A look at the controversy about “telling the truth” in memoir, and the complexities of using autobiographical material in fiction. (Half of all self-taught memoir writers probably have nightmares featuring libel suit court appearances.)

Each student also takes a “closely supervised sustained project in nonfiction and other genres.” (Here’s where the writer’s shepherded away from the literary shoals.)

Writing really well can be grindingly difficult for both grad-school trained and self-taught writers, but I suspect the former don’t flounder as much as the latter. They lose less time giving serious consideration to ideas that later emerge as ridiculous. “Leave out every third word of my narrative? Why not?”

As each MFA student stood at the spotlighted lectern last spring, I imagined them starting with that itch to express that all writers know. After they wrote their story, poem, essay or memoir, they knew they wouldn’t be exposed before an audience, naked and vulnerable. An expert had helped them polish their pieces, and taught them when to follow convention and when to boldly flout it, would have made suggestions and conferred their imprimatur, giving the student writer a sense of their work’s quality, its readiness.

When I was young, I considered my writing perfect and was terrified a graduate writing program might alter my flawless prose. So, I developed the habit of working through writing problems with help from books and listening to interviews with authors broadcast on radio or TV.

Perhaps there’s some unique value in hardscrabble success, though I’m not sure what it is. I got my writing done, have had much of it published, even won some accolades. But, it would have all come easier and, I suspect, sooner had I an MFA.

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Good Works – Guest Post by Margy Rydzynski

Margy Rydzynski and I are neighborhood friends and colleagues. We’ve worked together in the past, and coming up in the fall, we’ll be piggybacking on a couple of blogging courses. (They’ll be listed on both my web site and hers as soon as we have the links. They are low cost, and represent only a short time commitment. I heartily recommend that you sign up for them, if you’ve been thinking about starting a blog to further your creative or business activities, want to use yours as a soapbox, or just want to keep your family and friends informed of your doings.)

Margy is also quite a fine writer, with an unusual take on things, as you’ll see on her blog and in her post below.
– Lynette

MargyPictureI like my boss. Maybe it’s because I only see her sixteen hours a week, or maybe because she’s the pastor of a quaint, little New England church just a 10-minute walk from my house. She’s a pastor who practices what she preaches, and her message (peace, economic justice, community, service) strongly resonates with me as well.

Here’s the irony: I’m not a believer.

I grew up Catholic and went as far as my Confirmation. I’ve got the “Spirit of holy fear in God’s presence,” except that I don’t. I’m a “soldier of Christ,” if you can believe that (which I can’t). I parted ways with religion not long after that. It just stopped making sense.

Then one day my husband forwarded a job description from that above-mentioned little church (Protestant, not Catholic) and I grudgingly agreed to look into it. They were looking for an office administrator (boring) and hoped the candidate might have good computer and social media skills (maybe not boring?). They also wanted someone who was comfortable working with diverse members of the community (ooh, interesting!). Tech skills? Social media? Community? It sounded better and better.

I submitted my resume and got a call a few days later. Would I be willing to come in for an interview with their Staff-Parish Relations Committee? Oh great, I thought. I get the third-degree from a whole committee. Did I really want to do this? Oddly enough, yes. On the appointed date I arrived at the church dressed in my Sunday best and took a seat on a short wooden pew outside of the pastor’s office. I noticed a sticker on her door that said she was another liberal for peace. Nice touch. I was already in a good mood. Now I was in an even better mood.

And the interview? No worries. After a decade running my own business, I’m used to schmoozing. I laughed, I joked and felt comfortable talking openly about my experiences and our mutual expectations. Did I realize it was only 16 hours a week? Did I know there would be no health insurance benefit? Wouldn’t I get bored?

Did they realize that my first priority was my business? Did they care that I wasn’t religious? Did they understand that a certain amount of predictability was really nice in the insecure world in which I lived? A week later, they offered me the job. I thought about it, then accepted.

So, here I am, working part-time for a pretty little New England church 10 minutes from home. I like the place. They walk the talk here and they do it in a way that doesn’t give me migraines. Service, justice, peace – those are worthy goals and worth the work.

And I’ve made a deal with religion: it leaves me alone and in return I do my absolute best job in its house. It’s coexistence at its best and, so far, the deal is working.
______________

Margy Rydzynski is a social media consultant, teacher and writer. She is also the founder of Arlington Entrepreneurs, a business social networking website for businesses in Arlington, Massachusetts.

Margy is an avid blogger and manages a number of social networks and other online forums. She also loves to write fiction and is particularly fond of both the mystery and fantasy genres.

You can visit Margy, and even ask her questions through her website.

Got something to say about your jobs, past or present? Get in touch by leaving a comment. (YOur email address should show up privately when you do.) The subject of work is about to become a regular feature of this blog.

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A New Kind of Journal

HATE CLOUDSMy friend called to tell me her poised, polished, polite husband was filled with hatred.

I couldn’t imagine it. “What does he hate?” I asked.

“Our van. He says it makes him seem like a suburban father of six.”

Apparently all that was missing was the golden retriever bounding up its rear lift gate.

“He says that after he works out, he hides in the gym till no one’s looking, then races to the car, ducks in, and drives away.”

We’ve all got these little hatreds. One of mine is the use of the seasons as verbs.

“This is the lake we used to summer beside,” or “We always wintered in Vale.” (What about the other seasons? Does anyone “Spring” or “Fall” anywhere?) It sounds pretentious to me, but it’s probably just petty jealousy. I’ve gone on short vacations in winter and in summer, but never managed to “winter” or “summer” anywhere since the summers I spent with my grandparents in Florida, when I was a kid.

I hate when politicians talk about all that families deserve. What about the singles piled up in tiny apartments with a couple of roommates and barely a cubby to call their own? Or older people, whose families have forgotten them? Don’t they need or deserve anything?

More of my hatreds? The voices in nature preserves echoing off rock formations and scaring away the birds and other wildlife as they holler into cell phones. Don’t we flee to such places to avoid those voices?

Chirp-Chirp
In the journaling class I lead, we’ve given energetic consideration to the question of whether personal journal entries should adhere to the upbeat (chirp-chirp) model, or be treated as safe places to vent. I come down on the side of releasing frustrations on the page. Where else can we safely spew out our petty irritations and long-standing resentments?

And then . . .

A different friend told me that when her daughter returned from an overseas trip to an orderly country, the noise and seeming chaos of her home country, the US of A, grated. I couldn’t stop laughing when I heard her antidote to the stress her reentry had ignited.

The Hate Journal
She went out and bought blank notebooks that became her hate journals. (If hate’s too strong a term for you, try “complaint” journal, or it could be your “Where I Whine” journal.)

A hate journal bears no resemblance to a hate crime. In the former, no one gets hurt. In fact, the venting might even prevent law-abiding individuals from committing a crime.

Fine, Fine, Fine
In the 18th century, idle members of the upper classes cultivated melancholy. It gave them something to sigh about on their perambulations around their country estates. But nowadays, we are expected to be unrelentingly “fine.” Unlike the 18th century melancholics, our age has no tolerance for a good, old-fashioned funk, or for anyone who admits to feeling just plain “low.”

Among my friends and myself, any complaint we utter is quickly followed by assuring our listeners that, at least it’s not as bad as losing a leg, or being paralyzed as a result of an auto accident—equivalents of the “knock on wood” reaction. I think we fear that complaining about the minor crap we experience will bring on the big stuff from the universe.

“Oh, you think that’s bad? Try this!”

And lo, everyone will blame us for the plague of locusts that descends.

But, we can fuss away privately in our hate journals, and no one will be the wiser.

More of my petty hatreds can be found in Life’s Little “Infuriations” and More of Life’s Little Infuriations.

Feel free to share yours in a comment.

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The Interview, Part 1

I hated the company.

I was working at the company of my dreams. Unfortunately, my dreams had misled me. I hated the company. A lot of the employees did, so we were always feverishly exchanging job leads, exchanging tiny notices torn from the classifieds, and hunching over telephones to engage in whispered calls.

Finally, a small local company that published newsletters contacted me. They wanted an interview.

I was elated—except that I had the flu. My boss wouldn’t let me stay home. At the end of each day she’d say, “You have to come in tomorrow. I need you to write this or edit that. This report has to get out.”

Each night at home I’d lie flat on my back, still wearing my hat and scarf, my boots dangling from my feet over the edge of the bed. One morning, my husband Joe had to bundle me into my coat, propel me to the car, and drive me through a foot of new wet snow to the office park where I worked. Seated in front of my computer, I was terribly hot. I drank a lot of water. But at nine o’clock, my boss found me prostrate on the sofa in the company’s professionally decorated reception area.

She had stood over me, pencils protruding wildly from her hair, and declared, “I’ll get you some temporary help. All you have to do is supervise them.”

“I can’t,” I grunted.

“Then go home.”

“I can’t.”

When I came to, Joe was easing my feet into my boots and murmuring that he would bring the car right up to the door. I was to lie there and wait for him to come back inside and get me.

I was too ill to interview.

I had told the newsletter people I was too ill to interview, but they had been insistent. That should have been enough to convince me I didn’t want a job there. Hell, I already worked for an inconsiderate company. Now this newsletter company wanted me to interview, even though the receptionist I had spoken to there had several times murmured, “You sound terrible.”

Still lightheaded and shaky two days after my collapse at work, I donned a wool Neiman Marcus dress I had bought at a consignment shop. I can’t imagine what I found to wear on my feet to walk through the dingy snow that was barricading the curbs in the center of town.

Please continue reading The Interview, Part 2.

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The Interview, Part 2

The interviewers materialized.

At the newsletter company, four employees materialized into the open space of what had obviously been a factory devoted to light manufacturing at some time in the past. The three women wore wrinkled corduroy slacks, flannel shirts, and clogs. The man was dressed the same, except that he was wearing battered shoes with thick soles.

In a closed conference room the four told me what a wonderful place this was to work. They were like a family; several of them lived together. They did their shopping at the food co-op; did I know it?

Not only did I know it, I was a member!

They breathed sighs of friendship. What kind of writing did I do now? What were my editing responsibilities? they wanted to know.

My mouth answered; my head swam. Perspiration stealthily beaded my forehead. I was too sick to interview. And whose idea had it been for me to wear wool?

I thought, “I gotta get out of here.”

I said, “I hope we can talk again, since I’m not at my best today.”

“You’re doing great,” they chimed.

They faded before me. I could hear them, but I could barely make out what they were saying. I wasn’t sure what I was saying. It was as if we were speaking beneath the surface of the sea. Someone got me some water, and we all smiled.

One of them wondered aloud why I had had to work while I was ill. I replied that my boss had needed my help with an important project. (I felt it couldn’t hurt to seem indispensable.) They were looking at me benevolently, speaking slowly, and being very polite. I became suspicious, aware that the line between what I was thinking and what I had actually verbalized had blurred hopelessly. Had I absurdly used the word “crazy” in describing with my boss?

I dutifully admired the sample newsletters they showed me. But, I said, the contents seemed technically daunting, involving as they did tank hatches and tonnage, pipes and pressure valves, and hose handling derricks.

They assured me that I could learn it all, and gaily implied I would soon love it as much as they did. But even through my flu-induced fog, I knew the subject would bore me to stupefaction.

My interviewers were loath to let me go. Had I been entertaining them with hilariously unguarded revelations? I brought matters to a close by rising to my feet, leaning a hand on the table as I thanked them, and dragging my coat from the back of my chair with as much dignity as I could muster.

I never minded that I didn’t hear from the company again. But I’ve always wondered what on earth I said in that interview.
_____________

I’m planning to run a series on working. If you’ve got a weird interview story, share it in a comment. Or, hit me up if you’d like to guest post about interviewing or working.

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In Need of a Neat Conclusion?

PINK SWEATER
An editor remarked that after sticking with a memoir for 300 pages, he felt he was owed a tidy resolution at the end. I understand his feelings. I even sympathize with them.

But I don’t agree.

Do readers earn the right to a snug, reassuring wrap up to a memoir? Must the narrative of a segment of a life (which is what a memoir is) unfailingly end neatly? And even if it seems to, neither we, nor the narrator, can know for example, if the recovering addict falls off the wagon the very day we sigh with satisfaction over the end of an addiction memoir.

Regarding novels, British author Lee Rourke quotes Viktor Shklovsky, who said [a novel] has no ending . . . “because finishing a novel would mean knowing the future.”

I’m not doctrinaire about endings. I’ve always reserved the right to attach my own preferred ending to narrative works of art. (In my mind, Bambi’s mother is alive and thriving. So is the extraordinary Sean Connery’s flamboyant character in The Untouchables. Oh, he gets all shot up while an operatic aria soars through his apartment; but he’s patched up sufficiently to happily join in the slick scene on the train station steps. He might even kick the guy in the white suit over the parapet, after Ness shoots that villain at the very end.)

Now, that’s a resolution.

But wait . . .
Memoir’s different. Neither the reader nor the writer is allowed to make up the ending. Memoir’s current conventions demand that there must be issues/questions/conundrums and they must, absolutely must, be resolved. The unknown must become known, the unfathomable miraculously fathomed. That probably explains why, on concluding of a couple of memoirs, I’ve felt the ending was forced, and even false.

Dulcinea Norton Smith holds that readers want memoir threads “finished off neatly.” Well, I want the events in my life to finish off neatly. But that’s not how it goes, and memoirists can’t just slap a satisfying ending on their manuscript, all tied up like a sizzling roast just out of Martha Stewart’s oven.

Is that even desirable?

Sometimes the protagonist’s goal hasn’t been fully achieved. The fights with the mother, say, are temporarily stilled, but no one believes for a moment that they are over for good.

Jerry Waxler suggests the author ask what conclusions can be drawn from the experiences in her less-than-perfectly-resolved story. Maybe what the writer has learned along the way will be something readers can use in their own lives.

Yet, I don’t consider it the memoirist’s job to educate readers, nor overtly teach them how to live. I feel our job is to allow readers to share our journeys as we muddle—with some success and many failures—through our lives, as they do through theirs.

When I was a technical documentation writer, my coworker and friend, Bob used to kid that we should tell our customers: “Figure it out for yourselves; we did.”

Why shouldn’t readers wrestle with ambiguities and endure dead ends as the author does? Maybe what we memoirists teach readers, if anything, is that much of the struggle in life winds up inconclusively.

Probably this is just rationalizing. If I can’t offer readers anything short of a pat ending, I’ll have to shelve the memoir I’ve spent a tough four years writing, until a certain thread is tidily knotted. But the end might never knit itself into a nice, symmetrical garment. So, I guess my question is: if the narrator is trying to gain something in a memoir, is it unfair to readers to publish the book before all is achieved? Isn’t the journey worth something?

When I put that question to friends, one said, “Life doesn’t offer tidy endings; it’s immature to expect that.” Another said she actually enjoys open-ended endings. “I like it when months later, while standing at the sink or getting into my car, I find myself pondering possible outcomes of the story.”

Was I ever glad to hear that, because just last week it seemed certain that the end of my story, and therefore my memoir, had arrived, the treasure achieved. But then I learned that no, it hadn’t quite yet.

Again, speaking about fiction, Lee Rourke wrote that he is uncomfortable with the desire for narratives to reach closure. He distrusts books that force “chaos towards order and natural events to act unnaturally.” I feel that applies to memoir as well.

Mine was a search for more than just a material object. It was a quest to come to grips with my family’s destructive dynamics, which cascaded from generation to generation. So, I want to say to readers: “Maybe some of the tangible item is still missing, but Baby, this is still a damn good story.”

What do you think? Should I wait until all has been gained before publishing my memoir?

Further Reading
How to End a Memoir

Memoir Lessons: Buddies, Endings, and Beyond

Endless Fascination: In Praise of Novels Without Neat Conclusions

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