To say that the first six months after one's debut book is published are a whirlwind would be an understatement. For me, these months have been filled with so many wonderful experiences and events, new people and opportunities, a better understanding about the publishing world, chances to share insights, and much more.
The feeling which lingers most though when I look back -- as I did recently -- is one of gratitude. Hence, the heading for my recent newsletter: Starting With...Gratitude.
Even better, if you haven't gotten a copy of my book yet, until the end of the day on Dec. 9, there's a giveaway going on (via the newsletter) for a signed copy (AND a separate giveaway for a bundle of writing craft books). Details are in the newsletter (and since you won't be able to reply there -- as the giveaway instructions state -- you can enter one or both by emailing me directly: LisaRomeoWriter at gmail dot com ).
I also want to thank all my blog readers and other writing-world friends for putting up with my barrage of book promo, here and all over the place. Perhaps having gotten to this milestone at a somewhat later-than-usual age has made its significance loom larger. So my gratitude extends to everyone who has listened to me go on and on, who read and responded and supported and liked and shared and purchased and in any other way helped me on this journey, even a little bit. Thanksgiving may be over, but gratitude goes on...
When this blog was an infant, I ran some posts summing up advice and insights I’d returned with after attending a writing conference, residency, or similar gathering. I thought I’d revive the tradition, because this past weekend, for the fourth year in a row, I was at Hippocamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers, in Lancaster, PA.
As usual, I tried to get to all the breakout sessions, panels, and special presentations that sounded of particular interest to me. And as usual, I failed, because with so many promising concurrent offerings, it’s just impossible. So, I’ll be watching, myself, as post-Hippocamp coverage begins to emerge, as it usually does on others attendees’ blogs and writerly websites.
Meanwhile, here’s a peek into some of what made it into my notebook, though much more is rattling around my head, my heart.
I took a pre-conference workshop with writer and journalism professor Wendy Fontaine on “Using Brain Science to Write Memoir.” I teach a memoir workshop on integrating memories into memoir, and how to transform elusive, uncooperative memories into nonfiction prose—but this was a terrific chance for me to learn how and why our brains actually handle memory. I know this will not only expand what I can share with students in the future, but that it also opened doors and windows to my own understanding of why humans do and don’t remember, and how that impacts writing.
A few tidbits:
. I already knew that smell is the strongest and most powerful memory trigger (yes, more than music), but now I know why. It’s because the olfactory center is located in close proximity to the hippocampus, the place in the brain that files, retrieves and makes connections between memories.
. Some things that occurred are never recorded in memory, so even if we know we were present when X happened, it’s possible our brain never encoded X. All the trying-to-remember gymnastics just won’t work. Some would-be memories really are “lost”.
. What my husband calls “revisionist” history is a thing. A thing called “memory source confusion” – when we substitute what makes sense for what we can’t recall.
The opening conference speaker, Beth Kephart (whose work I’ve admired since reading A Slant of Sun as a newish mother), delivered a beautiful talk on the job and art of the memoirist—and its limits—and I snatched these juicy morsels:
. The memoir writer’s job is to tell facts and to confess when we don’t. “As memoirists, we are most trusted when we acknowledge what we don’t know.”
. When James Baldwin wrote, “I realized I didn’t know my father very well,” he then re-imagined him, but used language to cue the reader: “…he was, I think…” “I gather this from…”
. On the art of knowing what to leave out, and how memoir thrives on what’s not there: “Truth is messy. Carve your truth from the mess, but leave most of it off the page.”
. Finally, this beauty: “Grace Paley once said, ‘If you find only yourself interesting, you’re boring.’ Write past yourself and you won’t be bored.”
. Dialogue must be true, meaning it must match the character, personality, education, of the person speaking.
. Remember to show how a (real) character may talk differently when in conversation with different people.
. Don’t try to score revenge by placing words in someone’s mouth they wouldn’t have said. “Even if Mom is dead and no one will protest, it makes her look bad and it will be WRONG for your story and that will show.”
Kelly Caldwell presented a useful session on “The Art of the Catastrophe Narrative” (and the best ever, whopping 40-page handout packet!):
. Keep in mind, the (real life) protagonist(s) has a goal to reach both during and after the catastrophe.
. When writing, remember “Four phases of disaster recovery: Hero phases; Disillusionment phase; Honeymoon phase; Recovery phase.”
During a freelancing panel, Estelle Erasmus offered this deceptively simple checklist for a pitch: “Why this? Why now? Why me?” and added that the “Why now” should include some data, stats, trends or other information that’s brand new.
Steph Auteri, in a flash talk titled, “How to Pump out an Epic Number of Ideas in One Sitting,” offered writers looking to publish in mainstream media key article/essay idea prompts:
. What have I experienced that others might want to know about?
. What do I want to know about?
. What’s in the news that I can comment on?
. What national news/trend can I make local? (and vice versa)
. What new stats or studies can I say something about?
. What in popular culture—movies, TV, books, etc.—am I excited about and can comment on?
. What else are people talking about (what’s in the zeitgeist?)
From “The Art of Interviewing” session with Diane McCormick: Have a conversation, not an interrogation. Make a statement, putting yourself in your subject’s shoes, and see what they say in response: “If that had happened to me, I think I would have…”
From “The Long and Winding Road: Publishing an Essay Collection,” with Randon Billings Noble: Sometimes, you get the dream…and also lose it. I admired Randon’s candor in telling how she landed a hot New York agent (who wooed her over a pricy meal in a famous Manhattan restaurant), only to part ways when she wasn’t willing to mold her work to the agent’s vision. (I just pre-ordered her debut collection, Be With Me Always, from University of Nebraska Press. You might want to also!)
Keynoter Abigail Thomas shared many truth nuggets which I couldn’t record because I was either laughing or nodding furiously in agreement, and also I had committed to staying absorbed in the moment. She’s a literary hero of mine: when I want to try something on the page that’s a little off, I bolster myself with, “Well if Abigail Thomas could do X in (insert one of her books here), then I can…”
One thing that really stuck with me (and I’m paraphrasing her first sentence): We worry when writing memoir that others will say, who cares?
Thomas continues: “Who cares who cares? YOU care.”
That’s it in a nutshell, no?
[I was fortunate to be involved in Hippocamp 2018 as a reader and panelist (Debut Authors Night), and presented a breakout session, “Reconstruction: Transforming (Related) Essays into a Narrative Memoir.” More on the latter in a future post.]
Meanwhile, what have you been inspired by, intrigued by, captivated by recently at a writer gathering?
Ele Pawelski’s novella, The Finest Supermarket in Kabul, was published by Quattro Books in December 2017. Her short stories have appeared in the Nashwaak Review and Flash Fiction Magazine. A ten-year Toronto resident, this avid adventurer has also lived and managed human rights projects in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Bosnia, Kenya, Uzbekistan, and Kosovo. Ele teaches International Development Law and is writing her next book, a novel featuring parallel stories about a German mother and son trying to find each other after becoming separated during World War II.
Please welcome Ele Pawelski.
I found Moosemeat Writing Group long before I became a fiction author. Thankfully. Otherwise I’d probably still be a struggling memoirist.
In 2010, when I joined Moosemeat, I sought to expand my circle of friends and find a group of like-minded artists willing to help shape my ideas into something readable. The year before, I’d moved to Toronto after working overseas on development projects for twelve years and was still trying to find my footing back at “home.” I liked writing and a few friends suggested I put my experiences of life in post-conflict environments like Afghanistan and Bosnia into a book. I knew how to write academically, but creative writing was a different beast.
So I did what everyone with a problem does: searched online. Moosemeat’s website called out for writers of any ilk. I was in!
Moosemeat’s history goes back to circa 1995, when a group of committed writers wanted to continue meeting up after having taken a writing course together. The name was provoked by an animated debate over a story in which the main character has 10 pounds of moosemeat in a freezer. At least that’s what I’ve heard; Moosemeat membership has completely turned and the originators are long gone. Certainly the moniker gets a laugh, especially when we call ourselves meese or the herd
Eventually, Moosemeat would become the foundation of my writing accomplishments. But first, I had to get up the confidence to submit a story! I remember that meeting very well. I’d submitted a satirical narrative entitled, “Where Taxis Go To Die,” which poked fun at the poor quality of taxis in war-ravaged countries.
Moosemeat’s format is straightforward: in advance of every meeting, two writers submit pieces of less than 6,000 words, either a stand-alone short story or part of something longer. Generally, attendance is between four and fifteen individuals who provide feedback one by one. The writer also has a chance to speak at the end. In addition to regular meetings, once a year, the group collaborates on a chapbook of flash fiction stories and hosts a public reading for contributors.
I could feel sweat gathering under my armpits. The critiques came fast and furious – it was overly funny, not enough of a story line, too little information about my work colleagues, not enough depth…I got sweatier. When it was my turn to talk, I barely said anything, crushed that my story didn’t seem to work for most members. Upon reflection, the earnestness of the reviewers was obvious; they wanted to help. And a lot of their comments were useful, if only to point me in new directions.
It got easier. Two more similar stories later, I was far less sweaty, and had determined that writing a funny memoir in the style of Bill Bryson was not going to work as I had envisioned. In the process, I read and critiqued a lot of short stories, and listened to the critiques of others. I started to see what worked and what didn’t work on the page. Notably, there isn’t always agreement amongst the meese, which confirms the absolute subjectivity as to how much and why a reader enjoys a certain story.
For example, during a recent critique, half of us thought a short story that ended with no character development was fine as it indicated the protagonist stuck to his guns, while the other half wanted to see some learnings. This kind of diversity signals it is crucial to write to a target audience. But more importantly, it hooked me on the value of other people’s opinions and how those could enrich my own writing.
About a year after being in Moosemeat, I sent out the first chapter of The Finest Supermarket in Kabul. I received an immediate, and very encouraging response via email: “Let me just say “wow!” The verbal feedback at the meeting was also quite positive, but in addition, the previous twelve months had prepped me to take all comments constructively. Over the following three years, I presented the middle and last chapters. Again, the critiques were affirming and helpful, and motivated me to dig deep in terms of a generous re-write when I put the story all together. While I could have submitted the rewritten chapters for further critique – no problems in doing this if a writer chooses – at this point, I felt the story was ready for more directed suggestions.
In exchange for wine, two meese agreed to look over the entire draft novella before I submitted to my publisher and give structural and big picture comments. After I signed on with Quattro Books and incorporated my editor’s suggestions, I convinced one more moose to give me line edits, and check for typos and verb agreement as the story had changed from past tense to present. Without this roster of beta readers, I would have been severely limited as to who I felt comfortable and confident in asking for this kind of help.
Moosemeat has no fees, and membership is fluid, ranging from authors with more than one book under their belt to aspiring novelists to writers who enjoy putting pen to paper but are not looking to publish. The only criteria are the willingness to give honest feedback and periodically submit a story.
Being part of a writing group has spurred my writing to evolve in ways I could not have imagined eight years ago: I’m confident writing in the third person and have tried out the second; I can fashion a decent story arc; I get that a twist at the end doesn’t always make for good reading; and finally, I treat writing more like a job than a hobby. The fact that meese are also excellent cheerleaders means I’m unlikely to drop out anytime soon. We each email the group with any good writing news, attend each other’s writing events, and go out for beers from time to time. What’s more to want from a bunch of random creatives!
When I began featuring guest bloggers, Debra Borden was one of the first I invited, after meeting at an event for writers in northern New Jersey. In addition to writing, Debra works as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in New York and New Jersey, helping clients in a variety of settings, including as a “Sous Therapist” in their homes. Cook Your Marriage Happy, the first in her planned Cook Yourself Happy® series, is her third book, following the novels A Little Bit Marriedand Lucky Me.
Please welcome Debra Borden.
The ultimate moment of joy and validation in my life came on a morning in January 2006. I know this is where I’m supposed to say that was the day I gave birth to my first or second child. Of course, those were momentous events, but I never felt as validated giving birth as I did getting published. I’m sorry but it’s true.
When the doctor said, ‘you have a little girl’ and three years later, ‘a boy’, I held those babies close and then asked my husband to get me a cheese Danish. When the call came from my agent announcing that my first novel had sold, I sank to my knees and cried. And cried some more. For about an hour.
When the second novel was published, I finally began to believe that I was a writer. And I was sure that fiction was my game. But with the confidence came not more fiction, but instead light-hearted essays --spilling out as if I was born to write humorous truths. In retrospect, the essays weren’t all that different from my novels, which were both told in first person and made liberal use of my personal history—events and feelings, miscues and fantasies. A type of faction.
At the time, I didn’t realize that the essays might also be transitional. But as an LCSW I know something about the wordcompulsion. I’ve used it to describe clinical features as well as what writing is to me; with a nod to Descartes, I write, therefore I am.
So, it’s not so surprising that I transitioned from fiction to memoir and self-help. I often say that my work as a former school social worker informed my fiction. After all, when doing an evaluation or assessment, I was exploring family dynamics, human development, cultural norms, and home situations: essentially, a job that’s an inadvertent master class in character development and plot. Later, when working with challenging adult clients and I stumbled upon an amazing experiential therapy through cooking, naturally I was compelled to write about it, this time in article, essay, and self-help forms
But when writing novels, I was used to writing in stream-of-consciousness, a method I encourage. My mandate is to get the story down while it’s coming. If I stop too long to edit or correct I fall into the black hole of perfecting the language and I end up with five sentences, all with perfect grammar but no music at all. It seems to me a story or essay is a little word symphony with cadence and melody that needs to be played first. Create now, edit later.
Except, this often didn’t work for me with nonfiction. Yes, I still wanted it to have a snappy beat and the right key, but for me, nonfiction is more linear, more formatted and defined (sometimes even governed by AP Style). I needed to attend to research, too. And when I began to shape what I had in mind into a book idea, I realized I could best present my material in forms that repeat in some chapters, with similar instructions.
My publisher also was lobbying for some visual and organizational ideas that rankled: boxes and bullet points. Yikes, bullet points? What fresh hell is this? In keeping with the music metaphor, I was discovering that the kind of book I was attempting was not a medley of hits, but a series of singles. Which is not to say it can’t be entertaining, anecdotal, or creative. I learned to ‘write within the lines’, and I certainly hope every page, chapter, and even bullet point is still delightful.
When I write fiction, I do outline, but it’s loose. I scope out the general arc of the story before I begin with several blank spaces for my characters to weigh in or solutions to unfold. Much of my outline happens in my head when I’m doing other things, like chopping vegetables or not sleeping. But when I tried to write a self-help book in my usual way, I lost structure and forward motion and it caused everyone fits, including me. No sooner would I finish one section and start another that I realized I had to go back and insert or delete from the first.
I was also finding it difficult to bring the uniformity to the chapters that my original publisher envisioned. While the steps to treating The Stale Marriage and The Sexually-Out-Of-Sync Marriage may be similar, the behaviors they mirror, the recipes I choose, and the reflective processes differ. I’m also a bit creative with fonts and indentations and spacing. And by creative I of course mean incompetent. Six copy editors later (one a famous and expensive New York Times bestselling author) I’ve learned my lesson. And maybe how to write nonfiction in a way that doesn’t require my team to need a sabbatical on a remote island to destress. Yes, I exaggerate.
Writing Cook Your Marriage Happy, the first in my planned Cook Yourself Happy series was at times frustrating, annoying, daunting and of course, immensely gratifying. I’m so grateful to be able to write and to my readers. But also, to learn. I often say I wrote fictional characters I’d like to emulate, characters that grow and evolve. Going from fiction to fact has also been an evolution for me, although a year ago ‘evolution’ was not the word I would have used. This is why the next volume in the series is called, Cook Your Stressed-Out Self Happy.
I'm almost always awake past midnight anyway. But I'm not usually watching the clock to tick into the new day. Maybe it is a bit silly, wanting to drink in the first moments of the first day when my first book is birthed. That's okay. I'll take silly.
When the FedEx delivery guy pulled up late yesterday afternoon, I met him at the bottom of the front steps with outstretched arms. "This is a pretty heavy box. You sure you want to carry it?" he asked. I was sure!
Tucked inside along with my author copies was a beautiful card signed by everyone on the editorial, production, and marketing team at University of Nevada Press, all those I've come to know over the last 14 months, everyone who brought the book to life with such passion. (Everyone who put up with me and my constant questions!)
They're the folks who made this gorgeous video trailer. Please take a (36 second) look!
Book Trailer: Starting with Goodbye, A Daughter's Memoir of Love after Loss - YouTube
For those who would like to read the book, you can order online from many retailers, small or large, indie or the big guys. I've gathered all the options, linked for you here. And of course, I'd love nothing more than if you wandered into your own nearby independent bookstore and asked them to stock it (or at least order you one!).
If you'd like a signed copy of Starting with Goodbye, you can do so via Watchung Booksellers, my nearest local independent book store. Simply note, "signed please" in the Order Comments box on their Checkout page. (Also specify if you want it personalized or not.)
On our way out to a little celebratory dinner tonight, we may stop off at Watchung, where a friend spotted this:
One day soon, I'll head over to WORDS Bookstore, a little bit further away, where a friend, out for her morning walk, reports that we're already window dressing!
Readers who are writers, I've learned one thing well. Books take time. They take as long as they take. This one took a long time. But now that its time has come, the time merely seems right.
Thank you, blog readers, for allowing me to share my excitement with you! For staying interested in what I was doing and had to say over these past 11 years since I started this blog, way before there was any book in sight. You're the best.