Archive for the 'writing' Category

Writing about Family

As it turns out, May 16th is National Biographer’s Day and May 18th is National Relatives Day. I thought combining these two holidays would make a good subject for today’s blog.Ironically, tomorrow I will be visiting my family in New York to celebrate my son’s 21st birthday – so I’m doing exactly what Wikipedia says I should do—visiting relatives!

As a memoirist, the challenges of writing about family are constantly present. Many of my students who write memoir often express their fear of being sued. According to Judith Barrington in her book, Writing the Memoir, the chances of being sued are extremely low. For the most part, suing someone is extremely expensive.  Plus most people w considering the process might not want to bring any further attention to a potentially-embarrassing situation.

The dilemma for the writer is having the desire to do justice to their families, but also wanting to write a compelling story. The fact is, drama sells. A humor columnist friend of mine who frequently writes anecdotes about his wife or married life, clears his short pieces with her first. He is both wise and sensible to do this. It’s good to allow family members to review your writing prior to publication. Not only does it allow you to face your family with peace of mind, but it can also solicit an additional perspective which might also even strengthen your story.

No doubt, the most interesting characters are those who are spirited and who are willing and able to create conflict, the essential element that keeps a story compelling.  There are three types of conflict—conflict within the individual, conflict between individuals and conflict between an individual and society. The odds are that if your story doesn’t contain some type of conflict, either you don’t yet have a story or it will be a boring one.

If you are driven to write about family and fiction is not an option for you, then you must know your limits and boundaries within the world of nonfiction. There are three important things to remember: be as honest as you can, fact check, and preserve other people’s privacy. In any event, here are some terms you should be familiar with:

Defamation: This is damage to someone’s reputation, which includes damaging statements that are either slander (spoken) or libel (written).

Libel: This is being accused that a published statement is untrue. This can only be done by a living person. One way to avoid this charge is to alter character name, especially if you are saying something which can embarrass or invade a person’s sense of privacy.

Invasion of privacy: This is writing something about someone which they don’t want published and then sharing it publicly. This can include embarrassing, personal or misleading facts about a person which you might be obtained from a third party.

Copyright: Most writers are familiar with this infringement, but one thing I recently learned was that letters are copyrighted the second they are written, and that you cannot publish a letter without their permission.

Indeed, there are rewards when writing about family. You might have access to fascinating stories and details which could really sell and might not otherwise make their way out into the world. But, it’s important to be cautious and keep the following in mind:

Set boundaries for yourself; allow anyone mentioned in your writing to review the material and honor the fact that people are entitled to their privacy.

The New Journal – Author Blogging

Dear Reader ~

The art of being an author means that it is no longer enough to craft a compelling manuscript and submit to an agent or publisher. We are now told that no matter what the size of our publishing house we need to do our fair share of marketing.  We must now be excellent promoters of their work and with this revolution comes the relatively new interface of the author blog.

Over the years, my journals have been a conglomeration of personal and impersonal—

scribblings which sometimes lead to published work, but other times include lists of things to do and books to read. Now that some of my scribbles have gone public, I find myself a little more reflective. I try to keep my blog entries general enough so that those who are not authors will also find them stimulating, but those particularly interested in the writing life will gain some personal insight into their chosen field.

In general, there continues to be an intrigue and mystique associated with the writing life. I learned this while editing my last book, Writers and Their Notebooks (The University of South Carolina Press, 2010), and how fascinated readers are to hear about how the writer’s mind works. Even though we don’t get paid much, many people still say they would love to be a writer if they had time. In fact, yesterday I had lunch with a dear friend whose son asked her, “Mom, if you could be famous for anything what would it be?” She turned to him and in spite of working in a completely unrelated field, said, “I would want to be a famous writer.”

Surely everyone else’s grass looks greener, but if you love to read you probably would be proud to call yourself a writer. OK. I’m veering from the subject of blogging, but also making a point that there are different types of author blogs and it’s beauty is that it gives you a chance to ramble and muse. Alas, I have made a promise to my readers that my blog will never exceed 1000 words, and most often they hover around 700. Long blogs will loose readership. We simply all have too much to do.

Many authors already have blogs, but if you are considering one, here are some things you should know about the different types of blogs:

Daily Blog – Even though at first, this may seem like a wonderful idea because it inspires regular writing, these types of blogs are very difficult to maintain over a long period of time. The idea is that writing your blog should not be a chore, but something you actually look forward to doing. You also want to make them stimulating and interesting to read, unlike the journals you kept as a young child. In your first draft, you can start by writing, “Dear Diary,” and write from your heart, write about what really interests you and chances are it will also interest your readers. Then go back and cut what might not be interesting.

Weekly Blog – This is what I do, because a week’s time frame presents itself with enough material to filter through and find something captivating to write about. If nothing happened or sparked your interest in the past week, then write about something in the news which interests you. Write about what you’ve read. Write about a movie you saw.

Subject-directed blog – This is a good type of blog, particularly if you are a nonfiction writer who specializes in a particular topic, whether you’re a politician, scientist, activist, photographer, fashion designer, medical practitioner, painter or filmmaker. These types of blogs stir up the most controversy and will probably get the most comments.

Group Blogs – This is a good way to go if you are unable to make the commitment to a weekly blog. You might want to gather a group of authors together who write similar books and take turns blogging. If you choose this route, make sure you have a list of guidelines laid out in the beginning. In addition to my personal blog, I am a guest blogger and columnist on a few other blogs and I enjoy the occasional and refreshing nature of this arrangement.
What makes a powerful blog? This is an important question because unlike diaries, there’s really no use for a blog without readership. I suppose we should ask our readers, but many of mine have told me that they were just thinking about the subject I blogged about, which I guess means that my blogs are very timely. So here are some tips I live by which might help you:

1 – Have your finger on the pulse on the times.

2 – Let your personality shine through. Readers are attracted to passion in writing.

3 – Write well and compelling text. Sometimes a good writer can make an uninteresting story or life sound very interesting. It’s all in the writing.

4 – Update regularly. My readers expect my entries on Monday.

5 – Stay ahead of yourself. Typically I am one week ahead, just in case and I cannot blog on a Monday, I always have an entry in the hopper.

And the best news of all, (before this blog entry gets too long), is once in a while we hear that blogs can sometimes lead to a book contract – now wouldn’t that be a perk?

Genre Confusion (Book, that is…)

In my local bookstore I just picked up a copy of Jeannette Walls latest book, Half Broke Horses: A true life novel and as an instructor of memoir, I wonder about this new genre. Walls last book, a memoir, The Glass Castle (2006), was on the New York Times Bestseller list for quite a while. I read it and loved it. I find her writing quite compelling and she openly called that book a memoir, but I must say I am curious why she decided to call this new book a ‘true life novel.’

I do know that many prose writers who want to tell the story of their lives are frequently in a quandary as to whether they should tell their story as fiction or nonfiction. Typically, I tell my students that there is no correct answer. It’s whatever feels right or organic to your story. Some writers might find themselves experimenting by writing the story in both genres to see which one flows better.

No doubt, whatever genre the author chooses, he or she will encounter reviewer flak, once the book is published. A recent article in The Daily Beast (January 19, 2010), claimed that memoirs raise a perennial problem—sometimes fiction is more powerful than memoir and the main reason is that often memoirists are not as adept at using fiction technique as novelists. More specifically, in this particular article, writer Taylor Antrim proclaims that he views memoir writing as “cheating.”  The article mentions that he felt this even before the James Frey circus of events. He further explains that what he means by “cheating” is not necessarily an exaggeration of the truth, but that the stories sometimes contain blatant lies. He goes on to say that it’s not easy telling a good story without fibbing a bit, and it might be the author’s fabrications that bring a dramatic effect to an otherwise boring life.

As a memoirist first, and a fiction writer second, it is my natural instinct to defend my genre. Memoir is what it is and frankly I’m tired of people comparing it to fiction. It is a completely different genre with its own voice and rhythm. Did you ever hear of people comparing poetry to fiction?

The seasoned memoirist typically incorporates fiction techniques and if in fact, this makes the story appear fragmentary, then so be it. It seems that the writer is ‘damned if they do and damned if they don’t.’ If they use too much fiction technique and bend the truth, like Frey, they are considered ‘liars,’ if they leave out parts of the story because they don’t remember them, they are called ‘fragmentary writers.’

 So let’s just accept memoir for what it is and respect the writer who chooses memoir over fiction as someone who has courage and guts to write a memoir without hiding behind the veil of fiction. If you don’t like reading the form, then don’t read it and stop complaining. Of course, there’s good writing and poor writing; there are good memoirs and bad memoirs; there are good novel and bad novels. I believe that if someone is a good writer, it doesn’t matter what genre he or she writes in.

In comparing the genres, Antrim shares examples of autobiographic fiction, such as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Maple Stories by John Updike and The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro. Then there’s another genre which has been frequently used, called, the autobiographical novel, examples of which include, On the Road by John Kerouac, Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, Night by Elie Weisel, Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence and Childhood by Leo Tolstoy. I see two primary reasons for writing an autobiographical novel instead of a memoir —if you’ve forgotten certain events and/or if you want to protect the privacy of loved ones (or enemies).

Another part of me asks “Who cares what the genre is and why are people so intent on labeling?” Perhaps the most important reason for genre-labeling is that bookstore sellers will know where to shelve the book in their stores. In fact, the first question an agent or publisher will ask the writer is, “Where do you see this book in the book store?” Glancing ahead into the future and the inevitable demise of bookstores, I wonder if the genre line will become even more blurred. In many ways, I think it will  be a good thing if it does.

Note to fiction writers: You should know that most of  my writing colleagues are fiction writers and you should not take this blog wrong– it’s just how I feel today, but you know that I love you all and still want to hear what you have to say about this very controversial subject.

AWP Recap

Dear Readers:

I recently attended the annual AWP conference which this year was held in Denver, Colorado. As usual, it was a stimulating conference, highlighted by the huge book fair and exhibit. Last Thursday I moderated a panel called, “Writing Biographies: Making Someone Else’s Story Your Own,” (panelists: Phillip Lopate, Honor Moore, Robert Root, Kim Stafford and Joy Castro). I was thrilled that the conference room we were given was filled to its capacity of 350 persons. I was also delighted that there were two Santa Barbara attendees – Paul Willis and Glenna Luschei. I thought the panel went as well as it could have gone.  I bow to my stellar panelists – you all shined and I thank you!

There were many highlights at this years’ event – Michael Chabon was a keynote speaker and he was hysterical. Although I have not read any of his books, he has inspired me to do so. On Saturday, writers from THE SUN Magazine gave a great reading featuring editor Sy Safransky and writers Steve Almond, Alison Luterman, Ellen Bass and Frances Lefkowitz. The stories made us laugh and cry—just what we want our readers to do. There were quite a few panels discussing the role and future of small presses, and others addressing the future of book publishing. Here’s a summary of one panel I attended which was moderated by Mary Gannon, the editorial director of Poets & Writers. The panelists included agents, editors and publishers. Mary did a fabulous moderating job and she and the panelists left me with many issues to They all gave me many thing to ponder, such as:

1)    The new technology (ebooks) will make readers out of those who are not readers.

2)    There will no longer be professional book reviewers, but the readers or actual buyers of the books will do the reviewing. Book promotion will be done via word of mouth, in the same way people spoke about books in the past—passed on to friends during lunch, coffee and in the same way independent store owners suggest books to their regular customers and book clubs.

3)    Nielsen’s BookScan which has been in place since late 2009, is a monitoring and analysis service which monitors English-language books by providing weekly point-of-sale data. It tracks about 75% of retail sales which includes chains, independent stores, discount stores and  internet retailers. This service now gives publishers the chance to see how many books of a particular title were sold, so if a big publisher is thinking of taking on an author who was published by a small press, they can tell exactly how many books were sold and if sales were low, they might decide not to take them on.

The way I look at it, this is good and bad news for authors, but either way, we are entering a new era in the book industry where not much is predictable except one thing and that is  that our  children’s children may not even know what a paperback novel is. In many ways I feel sorry for them, but in other ways I’m excited for them because the technology might inspire more people to read. I’m not sure this affects those in their 50s like me who has not yet used my Kindle which has been sitting on my desk now for two months. I thought it a good idea to get ‘with the program,’ and buy one, but somehow, I just cannot bring myself to use it. I grew up in libraries and the paper books are a part of my blood.

I’d love to hear how you feel about the book publishing industry—where you think it’s headed and how you feel about it. Please write into my comment section here.

Until next time,

Happy Reading!

Diana

Happy International Women’s Day !

Today, we celebrate the economic, political and social achievements of women and  indeed, we have so much to celebrate.

First and foremost, how wonderful it was to see Kathryn Bigelow make history last night by being the first female director in the 82-year history to win the Academy Awards and on top of that it was for a war movie. Bravo Bigelow! Yesterday also marked the death of the oldest living person in the United States, Mary Josephine Roy, who was a sports-loving, card-playing woman and if you can imagine, was born before Henry Ford built his first car. In the end, she outlived her husband by forty years, had two sons, eight grandchildren, thirteen great grandchildren and five great-great children. Now that is quite a legacy, don’t you think?

International Women’s Day has been celebrated since 1911—even  before women were allowed to vote.

Today, in my journal I am going to take some time to reflect on the most influential women in my own life, both alive and dead.

TO ALL YOU MALE READERS– I just read that in Great Britain, male cosmetic sales are growing at twice the rate of those in the female market. There has been talk about males wanting to keep up and keep young. Perhaps you are all getting ready for your big day – International Men’s Day to be celebrated November 19 — so don’t fret, you will have your turn!

Namaste!

Forgetfulness

I wrote this blog in honor of my cousin, Jed’s 55th birthday. (Happy Birthday, Jed!)

Most of my favorite poems are found on the pages of Billy Collins’s poetry collections. So many of his sentiments and images resonate with me. If I had to chose one poem to share, it would be, “Forgetfulness.” The main reason is that this poem inspired me to rediscover the poet in me who had been dormant since childhood.

This is how it happened. It was 2003 or 2004, and I was in the charter class of Spalding University’s low-residency program, working on my MFA. Our class was invited to a Billy Collins reading at a neighboring university. It was just after Billy completed his term as Poet Laureate of the United States. The university auditorium was packed and Billy read many poignant poems, including “Forgetfulness.”

I vividly remember chuckling to myself throughout his entire reading. It was just about the time of my fiftieth birthday and I was beginning to forget more than I remembered. Billy received a lot of laughs during his reading, but with an audience filled with baby boomers, I think he got the most chuckles while reading this poem. If you have ever heard Billy read, you understand his talent and dry voice. In his poem, “Forgetfulness,” he incorporates his classic teasing technique told in a conversational and accessible manner. His imaging is extremely clever and it continues to resonate with me this many years after that first discovery.

I rarely will choose to spend the time to stand in line for an author signings, but after Billy’s reading, I purchased all his books piled all the way up to my chin and decided to wait for his signature on each one.  I didn’t care how long it took me to reach the front of the line. I knew that his reading would launch the new poet in me and I wanted to avail myself of the opportunity to read the poems of a giant.

You can hear him read on u-tube or you can read it here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrEPJh14mcU

Forgetfulness

The name of the author is the first to go

followed obediently by the title, the plot,

the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel

which suddenly becomes one you have never read,

never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor

decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,

to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye

and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,

and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,

the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,

it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,

not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river

whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,

well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those

who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night

to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.

No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted

out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

What Moves You?

This was a question frequently posed by my mentor, Anaïs Nin, and today I pose the question to you, my readers. During the past few weeks I have been in the midst of what could aptly be called a literary slump. Thankfully, my recent sojourn to Paris healed me. Many writers, both living and dead, have professed that you should write what you know—but I will take this thought one step further and suggest that you write what you are passionate about or what moves you. The energy of your passion will be enough to carry your creative energy across the page.

Beyond writing about what interests you, the question is: what do writers do when they simply cannot be ‘moved?’What do they do when their pen stalls on the page and words do not churn out as quickly as they would like?

The Poets & Writers website has a section called, “Writers Recommend,” which is a collection of interviews with writers whose work has previously appeared on their pages. In this section, writers discuss what inspires them and what they might do to stimulate their creative juices. I believe many of these suggestions apply to all creative persons. Many of the writers’ responses may seem obvious to my readers, but it is amusing, nevertheless, to see these ideas all lumped together. Below is a summary of the most interesting and helpful tips offered by these writers, some which have been used for centuries by artists and writers alike. My recent trip to Paris was a testament to their efficacy because I have returned to the U.S. with a heightened literary charge. In fact, during my week in Paris, I managed to fill up an entire leather journal, accompanied by jottings on my laptop of future article ideas.

Here’s a summary:

1)    Go to places that inspire you—whether it is a bookshop, local park or café

2)    Read the works of your favorite writers to stimulate or alter your own world

3)    Sit somewhere outside of your typical writing area

4)    Do something different to recharge your battery, like learning a new hobby or sport

5)    Drink coffee, sip alcohol or use other mood-altering vices… in moderation, of course

6)    Listen to music

In addition to this list, there are other things I personally do to stimulate my own creativity or to give me a literary boost. For example, I might visit my local bookstore or library, walk around and pick up a  book which interests me and skim through its pages. I might carefully study the Edward Hopper print on my writing studio wall, which depicts a woman reading her book in a moving train. Something about her demeanor and sense of calm stimulates my creativity. For some poetic inspiration, I might focus on one image or emotion for an extended period of time and this might percolate into a poem. Sometimes while traveling, (which I frequently do because all three of my children live on the east coast), I might write a poem on a hotel pad, in the same way that William Carlos Williams used to draft poetry on prescription pads between patients. Speaking of Williams, while in Paris, I visited one of the three or four English bookstores, The Red Wheelbarrow.

The Red Wheel Barrow

So much depends

upon

a red wheel

barrow

glazed with rain

water

beside the white

chicken.

Et voila! Here’s to inspiration. Let me hear from you as to what you might do to get your own creative juices churning and if you found any of my tips useful.


Quote of the Week


"A writer uses a journal to try out the new step in front of the mirror."

~Mary Gordon

About Me


I am a memoirist, essayist, poet and teacher whose passion is keeping a notebook. My notebook is my muse and my alter ego. It contains personal snippets of my life and observations from the world around me. Diarist Anaïs Nin has been a great source of inspiration for me. My hobbies include writing, writing and more writing, but when I have extra time, I enjoy reading, walking, hiking, yoga, working out, cooking and hanging out with my family and Maltese Poodle, Spunky. In order not to become ensconced by the glare of my computer screen, I also teach in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program and in various conferences and festivals around the country. My pleasure comes from sharing my joy of journaling with professional writers and anyone interested in writing.

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