Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Wendell Berry

I don't have time for a long post today, but I wanted to share this clip of Wendell Berry. As some of you know, I'm finishing my Master's degree in English and my final project is a book length collection of poetry. As a result, I've been spending a lot of time immersed in poetry--which is just wonderful!

In a week or so, I'm going to dedicate a post to my thoughts on why poetry is important today. But for now, since I'm short on time, I'll leave you with one of my favorite poets: Wendell Berry. For those who don't know, Wendell Berry is a Kentucky poet (actually he writes just about everything--poetry, fiction, essays) who explores our connection to the natural world. I would love his work even if he didn't remind me so much of my father. Just click on the link below. Enjoy!

Being: "The Peace of Wild Things" by Wendell Berry | Wendell Berry and Ellen Davis in Land, Life, and the Poetry of Creatures

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Guest Post: Fact Vs. Fiction: What is the place of “Truth” in Creative Nonfiction?

I'm very excited to have Amber Whitley from Ink Affairs posting today. In addition to being a great fiction writer, Amber writes creative nonfiction. As you may know, creative nonfiction is huge right now. Given the explosion of the genre, and the fact that I don't write a lot of creative nonfiction, I asked Amber to tackle the sticky area of "truth" in creative nonfiction.

Enjoy! You're in for a treat!

Fact Vs. Fiction: What is the place of “Truth” in Creative Nonfiction?
by: Amber Whitley

The term “creative nonfiction” is an oxymoron. Creation implies imagination and fabrication used to develop a story whereas nonfiction requires an absolute veracity that leaves no room for anything except the truth. So how, as artists, do we navigate this potential minefield?

Very carefully.

Think back to a moment that was important in your life – a first kiss or wedding or death – and try to remember the scene as vividly as you can. It’s difficult, right, to get all those little details like conversations, attire, setting, or even names. Now think back to something that happened last week. Is that any easier? Of course it isn’t. If we cannot trust our memory to accurately relate something that happened to us last week, then how could we ever expect it to remember all the details necessary to write a nonfiction piece about something that happened five or ten or twenty years ago? This is the problem inherent in writing creative nonfiction; unfortunately, it doesn’t have a neat solution.

Writers handle the “truth” problem in creative nonfiction in many different ways. Some writers try to stick to the factual truth of a story and will not put in any elements that they don’t directly remember or can’t verify by speaking with a family member or looking at a photograph. These writers usually don’t incorporate dialog in their stories because, let’s face it, it’s almost impossible to remember a conversation word for word without having videotaped it or otherwise recorded it. Other writers – myself included – aim for an emotional rather than strictly factual truth. What’s important to me isn’t that the particular details remain unchanged, but rather that I stay true to the deeper emotional truth of what happened.

In a piece soon to be published by Breakwater Review, I relate an experience that happened to me while a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kazakhstan. While dining out with friends, we were invited to join three businessmen at their table where we talked about politics and lesbianism and women’s role in society. It was an experience that has stuck with me years later, but in the telling of it I had to create certain facts, skip over others. For example, although I remembered what the men looked like and were wearing, I had completely forgotten their names. Also, I was faced with the challenge that this discussion was done in a foreign language, so not only did I struggle to remember verbatim what people said, there’s also the distinct possibility that I might have mistranslated something. Should I not have written this story because of the fallibility of memory? Did I change what happened? No. The place, the people, what we were drinking, the Cuban cigars, all of that happened. For the dialogue, however, necessity forced me to stick to the meaning and heart of the conversation, thus sacrificing word choice on the altar of creativity.

So where is truth in creative nonfiction? It’s there; it has to be. Without a solid foundation in factual truth, you might as well call your story fiction and be done with it. But what do you do when you don’t have enough factual memories to fill in the details or when you need to combine five ancillary characters into one for the sake of good narration? Each writer will have to decide that alone.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Sometimes you've gotta frog it...

As I mentioned in a post a few days ago, I have some hobbies other than writing. One of those is knitting. I’m not very good at it, so far all of my projects have been hats and scarves. In fact, if you know me at some point, you might get a hat or a scarf from me. If you do, just smile and pretend you’ll wear it, then stuff it in your closet when you get home.

Since there are only so many scarves and hats to knit, over Christmas I decided to take a huge leap and start on a shrug (for those who don't know, it's a short sweater). For several weeks now, I've been working on it, and was about half-way finished. If you're an astute reader--and I assume you are because you're here after all--you'll notice the operative word, was. It was half-way finished. All these weeks I've been merrily knitting along, happy that I could create something more than a scarf or hat. Alas, for some days now, I've noticed that the shrug looked a little small. Okay, it was very small. As in, it might fit my six-year-old, but there was no way it was fitting me. Sigh.

For several days, I postponed the inevitable. I stopped knitting. I stretched the yarn, hoping to pick up a few inches (didn't work). I thought about starting something else. But in the end, I knew I had to make it work. So this weekend, I ripped out all of the stitches and started over. In knitting, that's called frogging it.

So why am I telling you about this? Because sometimes in writing, you've just gotta frog it. I know it hurts. I know the last thing you want to do is scrap months or even years of work. But sometimes that's the only way to fix your work.

I've had to do this several times. The most painful was a few years ago with a novel I was working on. I loved the story. Loved the characters, but it was flat. Boring. The story I was writing had been told several times, by already published authors. So I frogged it. I gutted the novel. Completely changed one of the main characters. Changed the story line. Even changed the names of two major characters. I threw out years of work. That's right. Years of work.

You know what? The story is better for it, and it's almost finished. Finally. Frogging it is tough. It's hard to look at your work and say, "This is not my best work. But it can be, if I start over." But, it pays off. I'll be finished with that frogged novel this spring. In the summer, I'll start sending it out to agents. It might be good enough for them. It might not. But at least I will know that I've done everything I can to make it my best work.

From reading short story submissions for Echo Ink, I can tell you that most writers don't do that. A lot of people send out stories that need to be frogged. Step back from your work and take a good hard look at it. I know it's painful, but if your story doesn't make you sing, if it feels like you could push it to the next level, to make something really special. You might need to frog it. It will hurt, but you'll be better for it. I promise.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Because I love her...

Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets. Watch this and I think you'll love her too.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

In which I digress for a moment...

My youngest son, Caleb, talks to himself. I don't mean a little bit, sometimes. I mean a steady stream of chatter that Does Not Stop. In the car. In the bathroom. At the dinner table. It doesn't matter if anyone is around him or not. He talks. Constantly.

At the risk of sounding like a Bad Mother, I'm going to admit that this can get annoying. Sometimes I just want to tell him to be quiet! Apparently, I'm not the only one who feels this way. The other day Caleb was chattering away when my oldest son snapped, "Why are you talking to yourself?"

Caleb stopped talking and looked up at him. "I'm not talking to myself," he said. "I'm listening to myself."

I've been thinking about Caleb's response and how it applies to our society. Unless you've been living under a rock, you've heard about the shootings in Arizona. Don't worry, I'm not going to get all political. I'm not blaming anyone other than the shooter for what happened there. Not his parents, not talk radio, not CNN news. You get the picture.

But I do wonder if as a country, it's time to stop talking to ourselves (let's face it, we all hold our own political beliefs and rarely can you change what someone believes by screaming at them and calling them names), and start listening to ourselves. We talk a lot. We'll do anything to "win". Anything to prove our side is right.

But what if our side isn't right? What if our side is right on some things, but not on other things? No one is right all the time, are they? So why have we drawn a line down our country and segregated ourselves into right and left? Why are we willing to vilify friends, neighbors, and family members who disagree with us? Most issues are not black and white. There are shades of gray in everything.

Maybe I'm showing why I don't feel like I fit with either political party. I agree with the Democrats on some things. I agree with the Republicans on some things. I know, Gasp!! She said the "R" word. Or--She said the "D" word.

I have friends, close friends, on both sides of the political fence. Somehow we manage to disagree, yet get along. Why can't we, as a country, do the same thing?

I think it's time to change things. And I don't mean we need to go march on Washington. Hold signs up and picket. I believe changing the tone of our political rhetoric is simple. It doesn't start in Washington. It starts with us. If we are angry and nasty with each other, if we insist on calling each other names, if we can't hold a civil conversation with someone who disagrees with us, how can we expect the people in Washington to do the same? I do not think we mirror what's going on in Washington, I think Washington mirrors what's going on with us. After all, what do the people in power want? Simple. To stay in power. So if they think we want fighting, and name calling, and angry rhetoric that's what they're going to give us. If they think we want civil discussion about the issues that's what they'll give us.

You see, that's what's wonderful about the United States. The government derives its power from the people. Not the other way around. I think we've forgotten this. We've become so wrapped up in Winning, in being Right ,that we've lost sight of what's important--loving each other. That's it. It's really not that hard.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Guest Blogging

Today I'm guest blogging about what editors want (and don't want!) on Ink Affairs. Drop by and check it out!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Time for a refill?

My mint Christmas cookies

I'm going to admit something shocking--sometimes I get tired of writing. I'm not blocked, I'm not editing or in-between projects. I'm just burned out.

As writers, we don't talk about this a lot. We love words. We love stories. We love poetry. We believe in their power to change lives. But sometimes we just don't feel like doing it. I'm not talking about those mornings/evenings/afternoons (insert whenever you write here) when you sit down in front of your computer, stare at that blank page, and are seized by anxiety. I get that every time I sit down to write. Then I write a little and it goes away. Until the next time I sit down to write. That's garden variety stuff.

What I'm talking about are those times when you're just tired. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. Spiritually. You are tired. You are empty.

What do you do? Some people will tell you to push through it. You must keep writing. If you don't keep writing you'll stop and never start again. Okay. They might be right. But they might be wrong.

I'm going to tell you what I do. A lot of the stuff I write is emotionally draining (especially poetry) and I get "empty" pretty fast when I'm doing that. When I get that empty feeling, I'm not a good writer. There. I've said it. So you know what? I don't write. I take a break and recharge. Everyone knows what happens if you never refill your car's gas tank. Eventually, you will run out of gas and then, you're really stuck. You, like your car, need to stop occassionally and refill.

For me, that means doing something creative that does not involve stringing words together. In the warmer months, I garden. I love designing unique gardens that combine different flowers. I'll spend hours drawing out plans. Sometimes I implement them. Sometimes I don't. Either way, something about the time I spend in the garden or thinking about the garden recharges me.

Recently, I've been baking. Maybe it's because it's winter and I'm stuck inside. (More likely it's because I have a massive sweet tooth!) But creating something that's beautiful and tasty is fun for me. Fun is the operative word here. Sometimes we need to stop working and have some fun. I used to feel guilty about the time I was wasting having "fun" when I could have been writing. I don't any more. Spending a day in the garden or baking cookies or knitting or drawing (all things I do to recharge) is not going to make me stop writing. Most of the time, it helps me return to writing with a renewed perspective.

Developing non-writing hobbies has another benefit. You've heard "Write what you know"? Well, thanks to my time off, I know flowers, baking, knitting, drawing, horse riding (yep, did that too for years), and all kinds of other things. Most of the time, that stuff finds its way into my work. In fact, thanks to my interest in gardening I became a Master Gardener and now freelance for Kentucky Gardener where I'm actually PAID for the stuff I write.

So if you've never heard it before, let me be the first to tell you--it's okay to take a break. Your ability to write will not shrivel up and die. You will not forget the feel of your fingers on the keyboard. You will not run out of words. I promise.

My Mandarin butter cookies (this week's creation!)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why I Still Can...

When I first started writing seriously, I had a list of reasons why I couldn't write. I wasn't good enough. I didn't have enough time. Mom's don't really do that kind of thing. I'm taking time away from the kids. They'll be scared for life. I need to walk the dog, cook dinner, fold get the picture. As a result, when I finally decided that I wanted to give this writing thing a try, I had to wade through a whole bunch of mental junk before I could even sit down and write. I suspect a lot of you went through similar experiences. Oh, and let's not all those rejection slips. You finally work through your stuff, write a great story/poem/article/etc. only to get rejected. Ouch.

Yesterday, I had to go to the ER. Some of you know that I have Crohn's disease. It's an autoimmune disease like Lupus or MS. Living with it means my life is a little bit like tip-toeing over a rickety rope bridge stretching over a bottomless cavern. I can go to bed feeling great, then wake up at 3:00 am and have to go to the ER (yep, that's happened). Some days are good. Some days (like yesterday) are not so good.

2003 in ICU

The thing is, Crohn's could easily become a reason/excuse to stop writing. I can't tell you the number of times I've planned to write, only to end up curled up in bed in pain. I have Crohn's disease and four kids, one of whom is autistic and developmentally delayed--carving out writing time is a challenge. Sometimes, I want to scream, "NOT FAIR!" Sometimes, I want to quit. Sometimes I want to be that person I was years ago, who had a million reasons not to write. The thing is, we all have reasons not to write. You might not have Crohn's (and I pray you don't) but you've got something else.

I wanted to be one of those people who get up at 3:00 am to write (not for an ER trip). I wanted to be one of those people who write for five hours every day. The thing is, I'm not. Sometimes my writing schedule is erratic. I don't write every day, even though I want to. But that's all right. I've made peace with it. It would be easy to measure myself against other writers and find that I come up short. So you know what? I don't do that. And you shouldn't either. Be the writer you're meant to be. And you know what? The writer you're meant to be might be different from the writer you want to be. Just know that despite the challenges you're facing, you can still write. And so can I.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


We spend a lot of time talking about story openings. Most of you probably know that if your story has a flat opening, if it doesn't grab an editor's attention right away, you're probably getting a rejection slip. Well, the same thing is true for your ending. In fact, if people hate the way your story ends they're not going to remember your subtle characters, your wonderful dialogue, your deft use of the semi-colon. Instead, the only thing they're going to remember is how disappointed they were by the ending.

This does not mean your story needs a "happily ever after" ending. Sometimes, that's the worst way to end your story. What I mean is that the reader must be satisfied with the ending. You want your reader to walk away from your story thinking, "Yes, this is the way that story was meant to end." Maybe someone dies. Maybe the girl doesn't get the guy. Maybe she does and everyone lives happily ever after. It doesn't matter. What does matter is that the ending fits. That it's satisfying.

Let me give you an example. If you're old enough, you remember the television series M*A*S*H (if you're not old enough--I don't want to hear it)! The final episode of the series, titled, Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen was the most watched television broadcast in history (until the 2010 Superbowl) and for good reason. I'm not going to recap the episode, it would take too much time; however, if you're interested here's a link to a good summary.

I wouldn't classify it as a happily ever after ending. Yes, the war ended and the soldiers/doctors went home; however, they left knowing most of them would never see each other again. In my opinion, the reason the ending works is because the writers stayed true to the characters. The characters grew while remaining true to themselves. It was bittersweet. It did not downplay the horrors of war. It wasn't all "YAY, we get to go home!" It was a whole bundle of human emotion--good and bad, beautiful and ugly. I was in my early (very early) teens when the episode originally aired and I still remember it. That's good writing.

That's what a good ending can do. I've seen plenty of shows end since then, but that final M*A*S*H episode is still the best. As writers, we need to spend as much time crafting the endings to our stories as we spend writing that perfect opening. I've rejected several good, really good, stories simply because the ending fell short. Don't let this happen to you. You deserve more. Your story deserves more.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Short Story Cover Letters

Today I'm going to talk cover letters. (I'll pause until the fireworks die down.) As you know, I've been serving as an editor for Echo Ink Review which gives me some insight into the workings of a literary magazine. This means my inbox overflows with short stories and cover letters.
Now some of you might be wondering why I'm even talking about cover letters. After all, the cover letter doesn't really mean anything. It's the story I'm after.

Well, yes. And no.

Yes, the story is King. I want a story that grabs me by the throat and doesn't let go. I want to become so engrossed in your story that when my kids pound on the door I ignore them and keep on reading. So you're right, it's the story I'm after. We're not publishing cover letters after all.

However, the first thing I see is your cover letter and believe it or not, that letter tells me a lot about the quality of your writing and your level of commitment to the craft of writing. If you haven't bothered to research the guidelines for your cover letter, if it's two pages long and full of grammatical errors, if you go on and on and on about the theme of your short story, well then I know without even reading your story that you are a beginning writer. I'll still read the story, but I'm going to start reading expecting to reject the piece. And you know what? So far, the quality of the story has always matched the quality of the cover letter.

Here's an example of a good cover letter:

Attached please find my short story, Insert Title Here. My work has been published in several journals, including: Journal Name Here, Journal Name Here, and Journal Name Here. My story, Insert Title, was recently nominated for a Pushcart.

This is a simultaneous submission, and I will let you know immediately if it is accepted elsewhere.

Thank you,

Your name goes here

That's it. You don't need to do anything fancy. Short. Sweet. To the point. If you don't have any publications yet, don't worry about it. Every editor wants to be the one who discovers a great new writer. Just leave off the publication history part of the letter. If you have an MA, MFA, etc. that's good. List it if you'd like, but it's not necessary. No awards? No biggie. I don't care. If I've commented on a previous story you've sent to Echo Ink Review, please feel free to mention that communication. In fact, I welcome that. Unfortunately, we read so many great stories it's hard for me to remember everyone's name.

Do Not tell me you modeled your short story after Big Name Famous Author. Or that in your story you grapple with Pick a Big Important Theme and Insert Here (Life, Death, Coming of Age, blah, blah blah.) Your theme should be evident when I read the story. If you have to tell me about it, the story is not working.

You don't need to tell me about your day job unless it pertains to the story you're writing. For example, I'm a Master Gardener and write for Kentucky Gardener. If gardening plays a role in the story, I mention that I'm a Master Gardener and write for Kentucky Gardener. Those facts tell the editor (who might not be as familiar with gardening as I am) that I understand my subject matter. That's the only time I mention other jobs, etc. However, if you're writing about child abuse/drug abuse/alcohol abuse/blah, blah, blah I don't need to know that you have personally experienced any of that. I am sorry for you, but honestly it's just not my business. Finally, please don't tell me about your wife/husband/kids/dogs/ get the picture.

I hope this has been helpful. Spend some time crafting a simple, respectful cover letter and editors will take your work more seriously. This shows that you have taken the time to research the field and study the craft of writing.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Happy New Year!!

Okay, this is the year I resolve to write more and do everything else less...Ha! It's only 1/5/11 and I've already broken that resolution. Still doing too much with too little time (as is the same for you Dear Reader, I suspect). This week I've written and submitted my next article for Kentucky Gardener (on Long Lasting Perennials for my fellow flower lovers) and written two new poems for my Master's Project.

This is my last semester of grad school. I'm finished with my classes and am spending most of my time finishing my final project. It's a book length collection of poetry about adopting my youngest daughter, Grace. Some of you know we adopted Grace five years ago from China. At the time, we had no idea that Grace was autistic and severely mentally retarded. (Yes, they still use that word--I've made peace with it, it's just a diagnostic term.) It was, and still is, one of the hardest things I've ever done. Grace demands more time and energy than my other three children combined, but she also inspires me in ways I never dreamed of. Writing helps me deal with it.

I suspect a lot of writers are alike in this way. You might not have a child like Grace, but we all have challenges. Things we don't understand. Things that make something inside of us say, "Wait a minute, I never signed up for this. It's not fair! Can't I get a refund?" And then you hear something like this, "Nope. Sorry, no refunds. Suck it up." Or worse, you hear nothing at all. At this point, you have two choices. Dissolve into a blubbering mess. Or suck it up and move on. (Okay, I have to admit, I bounce back and forth between these two options. Some days I'm a mess. Some days, I'm okay. Same for you, I suspect.)

The wonderful thing about being a writer is that you can transform those things in your life that are so hard you just want to give up into something positive. Stay with me as I geek out for a minute and give you a Harry Potter analogy. Harry's parents were murdered when he was just a baby. His mother died trying to protect him. Horrible, right? Of course. Losing your parents is earth shattering. (I miss mine every day.) But this horrible thing that happened to Harry was his salvation several times. What protected him from Voldemort? How did he become the famous "Boy Who Lived"? Through his mother's sacrifice. The thing that caused him so much pain also brought him life & light.

You and I can do the same thing. We can reach inside and take those things that are the most difficult, the most painful and turn them into something beautiful. Why can we do this? Because we're writers. And if we have a superpower, this is it.