Reading, Writing

Writing Memoir While Young

I was in a room full of writers talking casually about getting published.

“It’s brutal!” said one. “I used to work as an agent’s assistant in New York. I should know!”

“You really have to know someone,” another said. The conversation went on, everyone feeling negative and discouraged. It was a conversation I had heard before.

So I spoke up and told the room about how I had queried my memoir; I didn’t know any of the people I was querying, nor was I introduced to anyone. I got a gratifying number of requests for a full manuscript.

“Of course they were all rejected,” I said with a laugh. It hadn’t been funny at the time, but now I knew the manuscript wasn’t ready. I was (am) working on a new draft.

“Maybe you should wait until you are old enough to have something to say,” one of the writers (maybe in her late fifties) said to me. I stared at her, shocked.

A million responses rushed to my mind. The first was, “I’m older than I look!” The next response involved some cussing. The third was, “You don’t understand the difference between writing a memoir and writing memoirs do you?”

What I actually said, because I cannot shake the Southern-bred and retail-honed habit of being polite to a person’s face no matter how I feel, was nothing. I turned to the younger woman next to me and asked her about her writing. She was in her early 30s and writing a memoir.

A memoir is not a biography, it is the telling of one story or theme (or interconnected stories or themes) of your life. The younger woman had worthy stories to tell. I heard a few of them over the course of the evening.

Who hasn’t loved a coming-of-age story? Why can’t a person write more than one story about their lives? It seems so obvious that people have interesting/hair-raising/introspective stories to tell at various ages and voices.

Age is yet another kind of diversity. No one wants to hear just from late middle aged people (except maybe the bitter writer I was talking to). And dismissing other people’s work in a roomful of writers is just plain wrong.

What’s your favorite young/old/middle-aged piece of nonfiction?



How Intersectionality Made Me a Better Poet

When I was in graduate school I took a class on poetry and politics. We read a lot of Russian and Polish poets. I loved reading Akhmatova and Milosz, but the class did not help me understand how I could write political poetry. If anything, it dissuaded me from writing anything political, because my life was so privileged in comparison to the poets and essayists we read.

The path of a poet’s career is sinuous. I found myself teaching intersectionality (the idea that everyone is affected in varying amounts by their race, class, gender, and other factors and thus their relationship to institutional power and privilege and/or oppression) to college students a few years ago. Our current president got elected. And my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, became synonymous with white supremacy.

One of the reasons well-meaning white people are racist is because we often think we are the norm. We don’t have to think about our race, because our society is designed for people who look like us and come from our backgrounds. And so we say and do and sometimes believe racist things.

I decided to write a poem about Charlottesville. I would place myself into a context rather than assuming that my experience was the universal experience of childhood. I would write about and question my own intersections. What my younger self didn’t understand was that we live in a white supremacist society, which means that our societal systems are designed for white people. (The black kids at my high school worked a hell of a lot harder than I did to be in the advanced, college prep classes, to take one example.) So I am a participant in an unjust system. This is something I can write about.

Writing about poetry writing sounds insufferable in the abstract. As does poking through assorted ideas about race and representation. But I am pleased to find a way to talk about social justice that doesn’t sound trite or borrowed from someone else. (The poem begins in a bookstore.) And if the poem doesn’t work, which is always a possibility, at least I will have begun to question how my race affects my life, which is something my younger self did not even know could be a question.

What are you questioning?

(photo by Eze Amos)

Writer's Field Journal, Writing

Writer’s Field Journal

I am writing a book of writing prompts. Actually it’s a journal. Although it’s a book. Hm, let’s start again.

My second published book, “Writer’s Field Journal: Thought-Provoking Exercises and Prompts for Creative Exploration,” is coming out with Fox Chapel Publishing this fall. It is a collection of prompts with room to write and gorgeous watercolor illustrations by Cara Connors.

I spent my fall reading and sometimes rereading books on creativity and creative writing. I spent this January writing up prompts, choosing quotes, and having way too much fun. At the last minute I realized I had promised to include a bit on procrastination. This post is an act of productive procrastination.

The fun, careless first draft is done, and now I have to nail down some details about, among other things, how writers can get into character, how to spell Reginald Shepherd‘s last name, and whether or not a prompt about aliens is cliche.

Are aliens subject cliches for writing prompts?




How To Develop A Sustainable Writing Practice

I once had a workshop teacher who would light a candle in the beginning of each class in order to “invoke the muse.” I secretly rolled my eyes, thinking it was hokey. A year later, I found myself making tea in a china pot, taking it to my desk, and making myself stay and write until the tea got cold.

My teacher was right. Sometimes we need something external to signal that we are taking time from our daily life to write. (A door that closes and locks is another one that comes to mind.) Lots of people want to write, but what makes a writer is the ability to establish a practice and get their work done.

This is where sustainability comes in. It’s a buzz word, sure, but “long-ass haul” doesn’t have the same professional sound. You want to develop a practice that keeps you writing, not one that burns you out. I had a friend who said she was going to walk five miles every day. If she missed a day, she’d walk ten the next. This is not a sustainable practice, and she did not sustain it.

Ignore all Advice That Is Not Useful to You

Sure, one person might write only in the library, and another meditates before an hour of writing. Standing desk, timers, waking up at 3 am, in the car at your kid’s soccer practice. There are a thousand stories of how people get writing done. The only one you need is the one that works for you. Not the romantic image that you would like to be part of, but the actual system that will keep you writing in the middle of the summer and in the middle of the winter, when you have company or when the other members of your household are away.

Don’t know what works for you? Try a new approach every week. Figure out what works best for you, and stick to it.

There Is No Magic

Sorry. The fickle fairy, the muse, creativity blessing you and abandoning you in turn is a myth. Writing begets more writing. Reading begets writing. Write on a regular basis (whether that’s every day or a few times a week) and you will almost always be able to write something. Major life events do mess up your access to your writing brain, but be patient, it will pass. If grad school taught me one thing, it’s that I can sit down and write a decent poem draft in two hours given enough caffeine and pressure when I’m “in shape,” that is, writing regularly.

Not in shape? Start slow. Do low-stakes writing, like keeping a journal. Do writing exercises. Work your way up to a short story, essay, poem, or—lord help you—a book. Write a blog or a letter to a friend. During my last move I made up soap opera versions of my daily life to regale a friend. Moving was stressful, and that was all the writing I did on those days. But it was funny and creative. It was better than nothing.

How do you keep writing?




Writing, Writing Residencies

Should I Go To A Writing Residency?

Yes. Next question?

Oh, you wanted more? Writing residencies are one of the best things that ever happened to my writing. The other is Scrivener and possibly my MFA program. And perhaps a series of life events that I did not enjoy, but that gave me something to write about.

What Is A Writing Residency?

An official writing residency (as opposed to a DIY writing residency, which is also awesome and worth doing) is a place you apply to go stay for a certain period of time to write. They range from opulent to rustic, sometimes they provide food, other times they only provide kitchens. Size, expense, location, and number of coresidents all vary wildly.

Why Should I Go To A Writing Residency?

Yes, you can write at home or the library. But do you? Writing residencies offer a block of time where your only responsibility is to write (although your coresidents would probably appreciate it if you cleaned up after yourself in the kitchen as well). You have your own space, usually with a bed and a desk, at the very least. Often there is a common area and interesting places to explore and get your mind out of its ordinary patterns.

Residencies are a gift. For those of us who squeeze our writing around work and other responsibilities, the time is magical. You have days that you structure entirely based on your writing needs. You have time to write AND read. You can go into depth in your work in a way that you can’t when you snatch an hour at a time from your daily life.

What Should I Consider When Choosing A Residency?

Think long and hard about what you need to write.

Cost: Can you afford to pay for a residency? Are there scholarships? (Often yes.) Can you afford to get to the residency? Do you need a stipend? (Sometimes there are stipends!) Can you afford to feed yourself while you’re there?

Setting: Be brutally honest with yourself. Will you like living in a cabin in the woods or will it freak you out? What is your relationship with spiders? If you go to a residency in a foreign country, will you write or will you gad about? (No judgment.) Do you need to be in an isolated place so you sit your butt in the chair and write? Do you need the Internet? Do you need to be in walking/driving distance of a grocery store, urban center, national park, or coffeeshop? Can you haul firewood? What creature comforts can you not do without?

Food: Would you benefit from being fed at specific times or would you resent having to stop work and go to dinner? Do you want to talk to other people? Do you hate to cook? I have never been to a catered residency (I hear they’re great), but I’ve got a pretty good repertoire of bachelor dinners and don’t mind PB&J on a regular basis.

Level of Sociability: Do you like people? Do you like talking about writing? Do you want to avoid all humans and just get your work done? Do you secretly long for a glass of wine at the end of your writing day and conversation with other writers? In my experience, there is a lot of drinking at writing residencies. I’ve never seen anyone be intolerant of nondrinkers, but if drinking makes you uncomfortable, plan accordingly. I’ve had so many amazing conversations with coresidents at my various residencies, and I have some strong friendships as well. But I also have a couple eye-rolling crazy stories. Fortunately, the good outweighed the bad.

Your Level of Resiliency: How do you feel about solitude? Can you be somewhat alone with your writing for the length of your residency? The running joke is that you’re not allowed to knock on other writers’ studio doors during the day at Yaddo, because the writer is either napping or crying. It’s funny because it’s true. I have napped and cried, despaired and rejoiced at every single residency I’ve been to. Can you deal with the challenge of writing every day and the intensity that comes with it?

Where Do I Find One of these Magical Things?

Poets and Writers and the Alliance of Artists Communities

What is your experience at writing residencies?

(Photo: the porch at Woodstock’s Byrdcliffe Residency; I recommend the residency, but see above point re spiders.)


The Cliche as an Opportunity

I was at a bad poetry reading—the kind of reading where the architectural details of the room are more interesting than the poems themselves. I focused on keeping the “politely interested” look fixed to my face. But my concentration was broken when one of the poets intoned, “the tulips were yellow as the sun.”

I don’t need to tell you, dear reader, that this is a cliché. The purpose of poetry is to see things in a new way, not to repeat childish clichés and tired imagery. But not only was the image uninteresting, it was incorrect. The Sun is a yellow dwarf star, but rarely appears to be the color of a tulip. In fact, most of us look at it directly only when it is shrouded in haze and has taken on a dark orange glow.

I don’t mean to shame this poet. We’ve all written boring lines and come to obvious conclusions. It’s part of the writing process! But this is where revision becomes important. Look for places where your writing relies on other people’s phrases. I don’t mean plagiarism, but rather descriptions that are encoded in our language. Some examples are a cozy village, a feisty heroine, sleeping like the dead, being cool as a cucumber, lost in the weeds, coming down the pipeline, time heals all wounds. Clichés have their place in the language, but not in literature.

I told an undergraduate intro to poetry class about my bad poetry reading, where the tulip was yellow as the sun.

“Tell me something about the sun,” I said.

“It’s a star,” one student said.

“What’s it made out of?”

“Helium?” a student ventured.

“What color is helium?” I asked.

“I think it’s odorless and colorless,” she responded.

“What color is the sun?”


“How often do you look at that the sun?”

“Hopefully not very often.”

“Exactly. The sun is made up of colorless gases and we can’t look at it straight on. It is hot and dense enough that nuclear fusion occurs at its core. The Parker Solar Probe is heading there now, where it will come as close as anything can to ‘touch’ the gaseous sun. All of those things are more interesting than the fact that the tulip was yellow as the sun.” The class agreed. Sometimes it’s good for students to have something to superior about.

Don’t beat yourself up (cliche) for writing a cliche. Instead, think about how to make the image more specific. A cliche is an opportunity to make your writing more interesting. Do you need some inspiration? Here is a poem by Margaret Atwood (please ignore the crap line spacing):

You fit into me

like a hook into an eye


a fish hook

an open eye


(Photo credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben)






Eyes Closed

I prepared to teach a nature poetry workshop at a local yoga studio, but it was cancelled. As a result, I have a bunch of poetry exercises floating around in my head. These can be adapted to any kind of writing as well. I think I inflicted one of them on my students a few years ago.

First Exercise: Go outside. Close your eyes. How do you know it’s spring?

This one is easy for me now that I’ve moved to Vermont and have a backyard that borders a field, a forest, and a stream. I’ve got birds trying to nest on a tin roof. Blue jays are fighting each other for resources. At night, I can hear peepers. The air does not hurt my face. It smelled like manure last weekend when the guy across the stream plowed his field.

Second Exercise: What did your house growing up/your friend’s house/your first apartment (insert dwelling of the past) smell like? What are the nonvisual reminders that you have arrived to a particular place?

My college town smelled like the cereal factory and my hometown smells like greenery. The train wailed at each of the many crossings going through my college town, and I know I’ve pulled into my own driveway in Vermont when I hear the blackbirds kicking up a fuss. The house I grew up in smelled like cool ash on summer mornings, and one house I lived in sometimes smelled like low tide. The ducks and gulls were deafening.

Close your eyes. How do you know you are where you are?