Book Review: Women Writing on Family

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Interest in genealogy, family history, and memoir* is so intense these days it’s about time a book to guide writers working in these genres became available.

Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing, an anthology edited by Carol Smallwood and Suzann Holland, is that book. Smallwood says she was led to compile the collection when a novel she was working on raised questions concerning writing about her relatives.

“How much to tell, how much to leave out?” she wondered.

When no books came to her aid, she decided to collect essays by published women who were also experienced in writing about families. Why did she choose all women? She recalled Virginia Woolf’s observation: “We think back through our mothers if we are women.”

With eight sections (including one on “Writing Exercises and Strategies”) and 55 essays, Women Writing on Family can help women writing about family stay out of court on charges of libel from irate relatives; carve out writing time from frantic schedules; approach editors in the hopes of getting published; and promote their work—whether self- or traditionally-published—to the public.

In the opening essay, “Family Secrets: How to Reveal What Matters Without Getting Sued or Shunned,” Martha Engber takes writers on a tour of their—and others’—First Amendment rights, and offers tips on protecting yourself and those you write about.

Lela Davidson’s “Laundry, Life, and Writing: Making the Most of Short Sessions and Stolen Moments” (Don’t you love that title?) shows writers how they can make brief bursts of writing productive.

As a writing instructor, I tell my memoir-writing students not to bother writing paeans to their perfect childhoods. I won’t believe them and neither will anyone else. In her no-holds-barred essay, “How to Write a Childhood Memoir,” Catherine Gildiner lists the unpleasant memories writers should be willing to excavate from their own pasts, warning that writing a memoir “takes nerves of steel.”

If you’re ready to propel your story out into the world, take a look at “Identifying Potential Markets for Family Writing,” by Rebecca Tolley-Stokes, “Locating Markets for Writing About Family,” by Colleen Kappeler, and “A Writer’s Thoughts on Book Marketing,” by Ann McCauley. All three contain a host of valuable ideas for sharing your writing with larger audiences than your family.

*According to Booklist, the number of memoirs alone published over the last four years increased 400%.

If you’re up to exploring more hard-hitting memoir topics, see Supercharge Your Life Story with These Ideas.

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They Came for the Cookies

For some of the creative writing classes I teach—thankfully, not all—I’m paid according to the number of students who enroll. Each student pays a very modest amount, so a small class means small remuneration for me.

After recently teaching six students at an arts center, I screwed up my courage and told the personable program coordinator I wouldn’t be able to offer my services there again.

“It simply doesn’t pay enough,” I said.

“How about offering a free seminar to the public so more people can learn of the class? Some of them might enroll,” she suggested.

To boost enrollment at a couple of places where I teach, I twice (make that three or more times) offered talks about creative writing. I put in extra time coaching my students so they could read from their own very fine work. The audiences sighed and clapped and laughed at all the right moments during the programs.

Afterwards, we held receptions and served coffee, tea, and pastries. Often I bought or baked the goodies myself.

Guess what? Few people who attended the talks ever took a class. One time, several people just wandered into the room and sidled straight up to the cookies.

No more freebies for me.

Since then, I’ve made it a point to seek (and get) teaching jobs that pay a flat fee.

But that can be tricky, too.

Recently I had an opportunity to submit proposals to teach several writing classes at a community education program where I’d always longed to teach. Then I learned they would pay $22.00 per teaching hour. Nothing for preparation. Nothing for the 30 minutes after each class answering questions from students too shy to ask during the class. What about the emails from students between classes?

So, I had to learn to demand not only a flat fee, but a decent one.

Writers are mostly paid peanuts, considering our formal education, and post college training and experience. (I won’t even go into our years of blood, sweat, and tears.) Most of us have written for free many, many times. We even guest post on one another’s blogs—for free. But, at least that’s usually reciprocal.

No more ridiculously low-paying teaching gigs for me. Well, except for two classes I’ve had for years and love.

How about you? Do you teach writing for pennies? Are you fed up with writing for free? Have you got a plan?

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My Wonderful Creative Writing Teens


Recently the extraordinary teens in my creating writing class read from their work in a public forum. It’s true the audience was mostly made up of the teens’ relatives, but even that’s meaningful. Some of my students had never allowed their parents to see their work before. And trust me, their writing is worth sharing.

When I agreed to teach teens creative writing at my local library, I didn’t know what to expect. I don’t have teens, and haven’t spent much time with teens since I was one. In fact, the only teens I’ve spent any time with were my husband’s and my two nieces and two nephews.

I teach creative writing in numerous locations—to students decades older than these teens. In my first meeting with the group a year or so ago, I brought along my usual lesson plans. I’m glad I listened to them read their work before I got started teaching, because after I became familiar with their writing in that first class, I told them, “You don’t need any of this stuff,” and I tossed my plans.

These teens were well beyond my introductory material.

What they needed from me were those tools and tactics published writers use to keep readers engaged; reminders to avoid cliches in favor of sharp, original wording; ways to shape a story so that is flows well; and methods for making their ideas as clear as possible.

They also needed a place where they felt comfortable revealing their work. I’m amazed at how considerate they are in offering feedback to their classmates, and how willing they are to help one another come up with a title or a name for a character.

They write dystopian and fantasy/SF fiction. One writes mainstream novels. Another writes brilliantly intellectual, yet thoroughly accessible short fiction. And one of them even undertook the ambitious writing of a villanelle, a highly-structured, 19-line poem. (Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” is a villanelle.)

While I listened to my students read their work to the public yesterday, I was as proud as their parents.

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I’m Innocent, Officer: Thinking About Memoir. Again.

That's me

To prevent narrators from coming across as a whiny victims, modern memoirs seem to require that the narrators take responsibility for their complicity in the disasters they’re recording.

There are times in life when s**t happens, when you’re standing on a street corner with your back safely against a building, and a taxi jumps the curb and hits you. Are you guilty of placing yourself in harm’s way? Is a child born to grifters or alcoholics, for example, complicit?

My memoir (or family history) tells the story of what happened after my dying mother let me know she wanted me to find money she had concealed. Who had she concealed it from, and why? What had her kids done that made her want to hide her money from us? (We know why she hid it from our father.) And, had she ever intended her secrecy to cause the subsequent fallout—to herself and to her kids alike—that it did? Say, the IRS got wind of it and seized it. (It didn’t.) Who’d be responsible for its loss?

My take? Sometimes you’re largely an innocent bystander, writing about your family’s foibles.

If you’re writing a memoir or family history, you might like these posts:

Must-Have Memoir Writing Aids

Is It Memoir or Family History?

Memoir or Family History? A Deeper Look at the Differences

Follow me on Twitter @lynettebenton for more writing talk.

 

 

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3 (or 4) Terrific Books for Aspiring Writers


Are there books you turn to again and again to inspire your muse or strengthen your writing?

This post (and a few to follow) is about those books I most often recommend to my creative writing students. Why? Because each of these books covers a lot of ground in an easy, accessible way. You won’t have to search through dozens of densely-written paragraphs or pages to find the information you need.

Give these titles a chance. Give your writing a chance.

If you’re lacking in inspiration, curl up with a copy of If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland. This classic retains its value, especially for the overly self-critical writer. It gives you delightful permission to write as yourself. It’s sincere, spiritual, and wise.

No writer should be without the Beginning Writer’s Answer Book, edited by Jane Friedman. Published by Writer’s Digest Books, this book is a nearly complete reference for newbies and experienced writers, alike. It covers writing and selling novels, nonfiction, and short fiction; how to market scripts; and addresses how to write a book proposal and find an agent. It contains hundreds of questions, and more importantly, their answers.

The next on my list is The New Writer’s Handbook: A Practical Anthology of Best Advice for Your Craft and Career, edited by Philip Martin. It comes in two volumes, both superb resources. They contain helpful essays on a variety of writing topics. Don’t miss essays by This American Life‘s Ira Glass (whose brief advice on writing stories applies to both fiction and nonfiction) and by Stephen Moran, who could be billed as the literary Simon Cowell.

These are the first books I recommend to my students. Got any you’d like to share?

For more tips on being a better writer, see How to Become a Writer and Calm Down! It’s Just a Draft.

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How to Become a Writer

If you’ve been doing something else with your life up to now (and who hasn’t?), go ahead and start identifying as a writer. It’s not necessary to tell others that you’re a writer, but it’s critical that you tell yourself. Believe it in your heart. Believe it in your soul. You are a writer.   

You might still be a full-time employee somewhere, a parent, a jock, a politician—or fulfill any number of other roles. But from now on, you’re also a writer.

“I am a writer.” Put it on a sign over your desk. Put it in a note in your wallet.

I created covers for books I planned to write—with their titles and my name, as author—before I ever start writing them. Then, I hung those covers over my desk. They keep me inspired to work on those books and reach my goal.

Some of the best ways to begin identifying as a writer are:

  • Write
  • Read books about writers, including writer-inspiration books.
  • Read interviews with writers, both famous and as yet unknown.
  • Visit whatever remaining bookstores you can find and thumb through books like those you want to write, or any books you like.
  • Attend book signings and author readings.
  • Join a live or online writers’ group—but make sure it’s composed of good writers, who are serious about improving their skills.
  • Keep up with the literary world: read online posts by writers, agents, and publishers.
  • Volunteer to write for a community non-profit whose work you want to advance.

And hang out at your local library. You’d be surprised how many of the patrons are fellow (or sister) writers.

Recommended Resources

The 22 Best Writing Tips Ever

If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, by Brenda Ueland

75 Books Every Writer Should Read 

Making a Literary Life, Carolyn See

Page After Page, by Heather Sellers

Help! I Need a Publisher

Tools & Tactics for Creative Writers

Writer’sDigest.com

Join me on Thursday, September 29, 6 – 7:30 p.m. for a lively presentation on Life Story Writing at Minuteman High School, in Lexington, Mass.

For a stream of useful writing information, follow me on Twitter @lynettebenton. And don’t miss Best Books for Aspiring Writers.

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Author Daniel Nester’s Take on When You Hate the Book You’re Writing

Even as accomplished a writer as Daniel Nester, the irreverent author of How to Be Inappropriate (love that title!), occasionally hates his manuscript. What follows is my interview with Nester about his writing—when it’s going well and, er . . . not so well.

– Lynette

What are you working on these days?

I feel like I am always working on The Memoir; or, The Story of My Life. I had a draft of it once, got really close to publishing it, and then balked. At the time, the A-storyline was about my wife and I going through two years of IVF and other fertility treatments, which led to the birth of our first daughter, Miriam. I wrote about it for The Daily Beast and subsequently expanded on that.

Since then, our second daughter, Beatrice, was born, which deflated, happily, the narrative tension of that framework.

Daniel Nester with daughters

Plus, the B-storyline, which centers around the relationship with my father, has begged for reexamining/ revisioning/reassessment.

In short, I’m a mess.

How does working on your current project differ from working on How to Be Inappropriate and other projects?

How to Be Inappropriate is more or less a compilation of some of the shorter, funnier pieces I had been writing for some 10 years. It was at once easier and more difficult to work on. Easier because a lot of it was already written; harder because it takes a whole other skill to arrange a collection that makes sense. I already had an essay about farts in poetry, a cultural history of mooning, and memoir pieces that involve me dating crazy women; a lot of it seemed to fit together.

A rather late but fortuitous decision was to include the piece I wrote on leaving the New York Poetry scene and a re-envisioning of the IVF story from the scrapped Memoir (see above). [Note from interviewer: “Goodbye to All Them” is a brilliant essay. Don’t miss it.]

I am proud of the book and I think it’s better than some of the critics have written. Haters gonna hate. Anyway.

Why are you hating your current manuscript?

I think it’s good to hate your manuscript, at least while you’re writing it. You have to be able to embrace the inorganic as well as organic parts of writing, if that makes any sense. I had a horrible Summer of Writer’s Block last year, and now that I am on sabbatical from my teaching job, I have pledged to not let that happen again. I teach my students there is no such thing as a block, blah blah blah; here are some writing prompts for you; go do them. But for the first time last summer I just couldn’t practice what I teach.

I think I hate this manuscript specifically is because writing memoir is freaking hard and I may have to write it another way, but I have to let the process lead me to that decision. I want to tell my story honestly and also compellingly; I know that I have to pick on myself and show my many faults, and that is hard work. It’s not like you can just have a normal day after writing about one’s darkest thoughts. Or at least, I can’t.

And then there’s the whole organizing it as a story business, which I thought I had figured out, but now I am trying to find the story itself as I write. I’m usually more organized and anal-retentive than that. This book requires a different system.

How do you push through the hatred (or dread)?

For me lately, by taking it public. The way I am trying it right now is setting up a performance art installation called The Memoir Office. I sit in a gallery with an office plant, desk, chairs, card files, and write and talk to people. I hold office hours. I have already done a two-week “residency” at The Arts Center for the Capital Region in Troy, New York, where I wrote about writing memoir, why my efforts at writing The Big Memoir have failed, and what I can do next to make it work, to tell a story honestly. I’ll be doing it over the summer and into the fall, so if anyone needs someone to occupy an office for a day or two, I’m their man.

It’s all very meta, I know, but I think it’s providing me with a structure and it’s taken the heat off of writing my own life story to be able to tell it. If that makes any sense.

Anything else you want to say about hating your manuscript?

Right now I want to print everything I have written and spank it with a big cricket paddle. I do not want my manuscript to say, “Thank you sir, may I have another.” What I want the manuscript to do is give up and show me the way.

But I’m too busy spanking it to hear it talk back to me.

*******

Get links to Nester’s poems. Keep up with his tweets @danielnester.

Follow me on Twitter @lynettebenton. And go ahead, subscribe to this blog.

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The Making of a Writer

 

That's me

I Had It All Wrong

My early fantasies of the writing life bore no relation to reality, saturated as they were with a determined sentimentality. I must have gotten my ideas from photos I came across in which writers were always pensively portrayed in workspaces that overlooked meadows and streams drenched in dappled sunlight.

I envisioned these writers living in unearthly serenity, happily insulated—probably by wives. Since I wasn’t a man, nor had I a wife, I don’t know who I thought would be earning money for me or handling life’s bothersome details—which admittedly were less onerous 25 years ago—while I was gazing out on a verdant landscape from my writerly haven.

By the time I moved to Boston in my early twenties, I was penning stories and essays, which I rarely completed. I know now that that was because I knew neither how nor where to publish them. I’d had it drummed into me that it was virtually impossible to get anything in print if you lacked important contacts. Publishers, I was told, were terribly selective, and no one understood exactly how they weeded people out. But, weed me out these disapproving, deskbound gatekeepers would.

I Get Make My Start

So, I read a great deal, and I wrote all those things I didn’t complete. But now I see they were all practice. I was learning to write better and building up my confidence until one day, I offered to write brief reviews for a regional art paper. I doubt if I formally queried or got paid for those reviews, but I got my name in print.

A local feminist paper let me write my first feature article. In the end, I was dissatisfied with the piece, because it didn’t accurately reflect my views. Even the photo they took of me on a neighbor’s lawn (well, here at least was my pastoral setting) was unflattering. But the experience took me from writing for myself to writing for others, and I learned to work with editors.

My town library needed someone to promote a literary lecture, so I interviewed the Cape Cod author and submitted a feature article, which was published in the local newspaper.

All the while, I took writing classes.

I Arrive at My Goal

I produced a blog offering creative writing tips for my alma mater. I wrote, under pseudonyms, first-person columns and an article about being overworked for two national higher education papers. Then I had an essay published in a women’s paper that’s circulated in a number of cities. More Magazine online published my essay about joyfully leaving organizational life to teach creative writing.

I managed to become a writer, publishing two dozen articles and essays, even though I had no idea how to do it. As writers, we have to make our own opportunities, and now more than ever before, we can do that.

The Real (and Rewarding) Writing Life

Neither I, nor anyone else, ever foresaw the major publishing houses disappearing or morphing into something else, with even greater strictures against risk taking. Who guessed that a writer would need a strategy as sophisticated as a business plan to get published? (And I thought it was hard to get published way back when!) Who suspected that we writers would have to learn to repair our computers, sometimes moments before a deadline, and distribute our work on things called web sites, and use keywords and tags, Facebook, Twitter, digg and delicious?

But at the same time that we couldn’t imagine the Internet, we couldn’t imagine that we’d perhaps be discovered electronically by a total stranger who might be an agent or an editor. Or, we can bypass them, distribute our own work, and maybe be discovered by them after the fact.

All this has liberated writers from those unknown publishing house denizens as remote and incomprehensible as the anonymous authorities in a Kafka novel.

I teach writers the tricks of our trade, so that these teens, parents, engineers, business owners, and military veterans don’t have to spend decades, as I did, figuring out how to publish the work they’ve waited a lifetime to see in print.

And there’s another benefit of being a writer today: if we post our work on sites we control, then realize we haven’t said what we meant, we can correct or replace it altogether. That’s professional freedom.

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Judi Coltman: When You Hate the Book You’re Writing

It’s not uncommon for writers to experience intermittent loathing for the books they’re writing.

I hate the one I’m working on because it forces me to recall unpleasant details of my search my mother’s money—and it shines a spotlight on previously unknown tensions in my small immediate family.

However, writer Judi Coltman, author of Is It Just Me? or Is Everyone a Little Nuts?, is unhappy with her published book in a completely different way. Here’s what she says about it.

“I don’t hate my book itself. I only hate it because, being my first book, I chose a genre that is easy for me. I have always been known as a humor writer. My blog is a humor blog; it’s pretty much who I am. But, the truth is, I write in many genres. I just haven’t published a book in any other genre.

“Everyone expects another humor book. I now understand actors who fear type casting! But I have moved on to a a project that is more about writing than about making fun of myself. It’s in a much more challenging genre. Now that I am working on a murder mystery, I find myself struggling with the voice, my readers, and the whole concept. I second guess myself, asking, “Am I making a mistake?” And I get to a point where I wonder if I should scrap my mystery and write more humor.”

Judi’s book, Is It Just Me? or Is Everyone a Little Nuts? is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and on Kindle.

Read more from Judi at her delightfully honest blog, My Life in a Nutshell. Follow her on Twitter @JudiColtman.

If you can hardly stand the sight of your manuscript these days, you might be interested in When You Hate the Book You’re Writing, Part 1.

To read about another writer who’s hating her book, please see also “When You Hate the Book You’re Writing, Part 3.” She’s got strategies to help her keep working on her manuscript. And I promise to share the ones I use to make myself continue writing My Mother’s Money.

Please leave a comment if you hate the book you’re writing.

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When You Hate the Book You’re Writing, Series Introduction

It’s riveting. It’s exciting. If I wanted to, I probably could make it read like a thriller. Yet, here’s a conversation I have at least once a week.

A friend says, “How’s your memoir coming along?”

“Which one?” I ask, hoping this friend is asking about the other one, the one I’m writing that I don’t hate. But it’s seldom that one.

“The one about your hidden inheritance.”

“My Mother’s Money?” I ask in a tone designed to discourage further probing.

“Yeah.”

“I hate it.”

“Why? I can’t wait to read what comes next. It’s very suspenseful.”

“Well, yes. It’s a good story. But I hate writing it,” I reply.

“But, why?”

Why, indeed.

It’s probably a persistent peril of memoir writing—the fact that you, the writer, already know the (sordid) story, and how it turns out. You’ve lived it. And it’s strangely both upsetting and boring to relive it through your work.

When I mentioned on Twitter that I hate the memoir I’m writing, I got more immediate responses than for anything else I’ve ever tweeted. One published writer even said hating her story is one of the reasons she won’t write her memoir.

It’s seems that disgust with the manuscript-in-progress is a predictable phase (along with doubt) we must endure in the course of writing. (Afterward, along comes profound embarrassment at the book’s flaws, no matter how much acclaim it garners.)

But, this is different. This isn’t a question of quality. This is trial by memory—more like, “How many times do I have to think about this lousy, although ultimately enriching, experience?” with a little bit of “Maybe I should just tell people what happened and not write about it” thrown in.

Now I’m in the research phase of the memoir. I’m going through my journals, emails, and accordion files to remind myself of the sequence of events: When did this lawyer tell me he never got paid for work he did for my siblings and me just after our mother died? When did that lawyer call me out of the blue to offer to help us get another portion of our inheritance money—at a steep percentage for himself. I’m looking at real drudgery.

So how do I get past this ennui?

I’ve got a few strategies to kick myself beyond my bad attitude. I’ll share them in a later post on this subject. See When You Hate the Book You’re Writing, Part 2, to read what another writer says about hating her book.

If you’re hating your manuscript, whatever it is, and wherever you are in the process, please share your troubles and triumphs in the comments!

Find out more about My Mother’s Money: A Memoir of Suspense.

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