Writing can be lonely work. I’ve often wished to be part of an ongoing writers’ community that could offer support, critique, the occasional kick in the pants. I’ve tried a few times to get a group going, but haven’t succeeded in making one stick long term. (Recently, I’ve begun exchanging critique with a new group of writerly women, so that may change.) Rae Theodore is a writer I’ve gotten to know online through her blog, The Flannel Files, on which she discusses butchness, writing, cats, teenagers, spirit animals and more. She’s mentioned her writing group several times as being a major impetus behind her memoir, Leaving Normal: Adventures in Gender, which was published last year by Weasel Press. So I decided to pick her brain a little bit about her writing group and how it’s impacted her work. Continue reading Freewriting, Honesty and Respect: a chat with blogger/memoirist middleagebutch
And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
you breathe differently down here.
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
Adrienne Rich, “Diving into the Wreck”
Five years ago, an essay I wrote won Glamour magazine’s “My Real Life Story” essay contest. Part of the prize package was a chat with a literary agent. That essay was the first I’d ever written outside of schoolwork; prior to that, I’d been a poet and then a playwright and monologuist. But when the agent asked me what I was working on, I told her I was writing a book.
Then I had to figure out what kind of book it was.
A memoir had crossed my mind; after all, the Glamour essay was a personal narrative. But that piece dealt with a painful chapter of my life; it was draining to write. I didn’t fancy the idea of spending months dredging up childhood hurts. So I opted for essay collection in lieu of memoir. My thought was that I would tackle ideas, something I’d done in my work for the stage. I’d investigate what mattered to me, things I had questions about or couldn’t entirely figure out—like friendship and fear and love. I’d write about those things and tell some stories from my life in which they played a part.
Last fall I finished The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures, a collection of seventeen linked essays, and crafted a query letter. Out of thirty queries, I had five or six requests for the manuscript. Almost every agent who read it said something along the lines of, I love the writing but it feels like it wants to be a memoir.
I took another look and understood what they meant.
Through writing about the issues I’d struggled with, the questions I’d had, the discoveries I’d made over the years, I’d constructed a roundabout memoir—a looping, back and forth journey through my life.
So this spring, I set about remodeling The Saltwater Twin from a not-quite memoir into a memoir memoir. I rearranged and reconstructed chapters, cut one entirely, added connective tissue and arrived at something new, something I like. Definitely something that packs a bigger punch.
And—I found an agent!
I’m represented by Ellen Geiger at Frances Goldin Literary Agency. I really like Ellen, and I really like the agency. In one of our first conversations, Ellen told me to go online and find Frances Goldin’s Occupy Wall Street video.
Frances is eighty-seven in the clip, which is from 2011, and she’s trying to get a cop to arrest her. He refuses. She’d been arrested nine times for civil disobedience and was working toward a dozen. She passes out buttons that say “Tax the Rich.”
I hope I get to meet her.
One of the reasons I queried Ellen is because the agency represents Barbara Kingsolver and Dorothy Allison, both of whose work I love. In fact, though I’ve never met Barbara Kingsolver, her advice got me through the first round of rejections to my query letter (I wrote about that here):
“This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address.’ Just keep looking for the right address.”
Ellen also represents the estate of poet Adrienne Rich. With all the undersea imagery of The Saltwater Twin, I thought often of Rich’s famous poem, “Diving into the Wreck” when I sat down to write. I almost used a few lines from it as the book’s epigraph:
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
It goes without saying I’m over the moon at being in such august company!
On Ellen’s advice, I did one more round of revisions this summer. I sent the new manuscript to her this week. After Labor Day, we take the next step on the journey: finding a publisher. In Barbara Kingsolver’s words, we look for the right address.
It’s out of my hands for now. So, between daydreams about what’s next for The Saltwater Twin, I’ll be thrifting my back to school wardrobe, beginning the search for a new puppy, and oh yeah—starting work on a novel.
You may have noticed I’ve been absent a minute. That’s because I really wanted the next time I posted to be able to say—
Pop the bubbly, kids, I’ve finished my manuscript!
The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures is ready for the next stage in its journey to a bookshelves, beach bags and bedside tables. Next steps are to hear back from a small cadre of readers who’ve generously offered to give me their impressions and then letters letters letters to agents. Though I haven’t printed the manuscript in its entirety, I’ve been doing the screen equivalent of picking it up and hefting it in my hands by opening the document and scrolling through. It’s clocking in at seventeen chapters, three hundred eighty four pages.
I just read Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett’s memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy. She describes standing on her first novel the day she finished the manuscript to see how much taller it made her. I do feel taller. Very important allies and friends Jordan “Pittsburgh Road Trip” LaSalle and Lindsay “Self-appointed Biggest Fan” Porter helped me celebrate with an enormous pasta dinner.
And away we go! Stay tuned…
I’ve been jittery ever since I found out my essay “The Saltwater Twin” would be published in Creative Nonfiction this summer. I know that’s the objective: I want stuff I write to be published, to be out in the world and part of conversations and all of that. But I don’t think about that while I’m writing, I just write. I sort things out, I investigate what troubles me, what makes me curious and what I don’t understand. Sometime later it sinks in that people are going to read what I wrote and that I’ve written about real people, living and breathing in the world, people who might also decide to read what I’ve written. Continue reading Whose Story? The Ethics of Writing Memoir
May 28, 2013. It was a Memorial Day weekend of firsts: first trip to Pittsburgh, first writers’ conference, first seitan taco.
The Creative Nonfiction Foundation in Pittsburgh publishes books and a magazine dedicated to literary nonfiction and offers workshops, mentoring and online classes. It’s entirely possible there’s an excerpt from The Saltwater Twin in a pile on someone’s desk in their office from my last round of submissions. Several weeks ago I decided to sign up for their Best of Creative Nonfiction Conference and started planning a road trip to Pittsburgh.
May 24. My friend Jordan and I left Chicago around noon and made our first pit stop somewhere in Indiana at a really outstanding rest stop where we bought some friendship bracelets for ourselves and our Pittsburgh hosts – those kind made with the embroidery thread. I’ll never get tired of them. Jordan snapped my photo (wearing my new bracelet) next to the pouty McDonald’s girl and we fortified ourselves with some chocolate.
Memory has been on my mind. As I’ve mentioned in this blog, The Saltwater Twin contains some elements of memoir. Working on this book has meant hours spent in my brain’s attic, rummaging through memories, emerging powdery and hoarse with dust.
Actually, that’s not the way memory works. Turns out, it’s not even a good metaphor for how it works. A memory isn’t like a letter or a photograph. It doesn’t live in one place in our brain. A memory is a pathway, it links sensory and emotional data stored in different parts of our cerebral cortex and limbic system. This is my understanding, anyway, after the twelve or so articles and one podcast I recently turned to in an attempt to get acquainted with memory. Neuroscience is like space. It’s fascinating, hard to wrap my head around and more than a little disconcerting.
Here are some more (unscientific) things that fascinate me about memory: Continue reading Memoir & Memory
I’ve been invited by writer, performer and activist Nikki Patin to participate in an interview series called The Next Big Thing in which authors talk about their work. (Thanks, Nikki!) You can check out what Nikki’s up to at nikkipatin.com. Since I’m kind of new at this interview thing, I’ve asked my friend Lindsay to weigh in. Welcome, Lindsay! Let’s go! Continue reading The Next Big Thing
The last chapter in The Saltwater Twin (don’t hold your breath, friends, I’ve months to go yet) is going to be about letting go. It’s something I wish I were better at. It’s a little bit of a pickle, actually, because as a writer, it’s sort of my job to notice and hold and catalogue details, but as a human being who prefers to feel mostly happy and relatively untortured, I find letting go to be a useful skill. It’s something I keep having to learn, maybe the most important thing. As such, it seems like a fitting topic for the last chapter of a book that is something of a piecemeal memoir of my whole life so far.
It’s been a challenging month. (More on that in the next post.) This old song has been playing in my head. I couldn’t remember all the words, but I knew it was Irish; I thought The Clancy Brothers sang it. Yesterday I went online to find a version to download. Turns out “The Parting Glass” dates back to at least the 18th century, and The Clancy Brothers did often play it to end their concerts. There are different versions, of course, because it is an old, old song with, as it turns out, both Irish and Scottish roots, but here are a couple of the verses that are often sung:
Of all the money e’er I had,
I spent it in good company.
And all the harm I’ve ever done,
Alas! it was to none but me.
And all I’ve done for want of wit
To memory now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be with you all.
Oh, all the comrades e’er I had,
They’re sorry for my going away,
And all the sweethearts e’er I had,
They’d wish me one more day to stay,
But since it falls unto my lot,
That I should rise and you should not,
I gently rise and softly call,
Good night and joy be with you all.
Okay, so it makes sense why this song has been playing on the record player in my brain recently, since it’s about letting go – well, saying goodbye, anyway – for a short time or a long time or forever. The melody sounds sweet and old and wistful, like the song is trying to teach you how to let go gently before the last note fades. The Pogues did a rendition and The Wailin’ Jennys, The High Kings and, of course, The Clancy Brothers. I was listening to the latter when a thumbnail image in the margin caught my attention: “Bob Dylan: Thoughts on Liam Clancy.” I clicked. In the clip, Dylan tells a story about drinking pint after pint of Guinness with Clancy someplace in Greenwich Village when Clancy said to him, “Remember Bob, no fear, no envy, no meanness.”
Yes, I am now getting my life lessons from YouTube. Because that’s one of the best things I’ve ever heard. The best advice for writing and for life.
No fear. Yep. Fear suffocates. We are our best when we throw ourselves into our work wholeheartedly without worrying about the outcome. I, for example, don’t know what will happen when I finish this book. What if no one publishes it? No one reads it? What if I’m fooling myself that I have something worthwhile to say? There are a million what ifs. But I think I’m best, I’m smartest and happiest when I can let go of the fear that things won’t turn out the way I hope.
No envy. Yep. I’ve been reading a lot of essay and memoir while working on this book. The Saltwater Twin is a collection of personal essays, a new form for me. I want to get a sense of the ways it has been done, how best to assemble a collection of work, how to create a dynamic narrative arc from stories that felt random when they were happening, how to strike a satisfying balance between story and non-narrative (but hopefully still diverting) musings. Sometimes I envy the writers I’m reading. They’ve already published books. They already have fancy websites and checks from publishers and book signings with plastic cups of wine. That envy is a fruitless pursuit, and it leads, frequently, back to fear. Who am I to think I can do this thing?
No meanness. Ah. I like that meanness has multiple meanings. Meanness, as in unkindness, does not make good art. The voices that hiss “stupid” or “worthless” or “give up now” do not make me want to sit down and type. But neither does meanness as in stinginess. I can’t hold anything back. I want to give my whole self to the work – everything I have – and freely. This goes for life, too, of course. You are a genius, Liam Clancy!
So, my lads and lasses, my comrades and sweethearts – letting go of fear, of envy, of meanness. Will you fill a glass and toast with me to that?