writing

On “Good Luck”: Live-Blogging Jane Friedman’s _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 2 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Part 1, on networking, is here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“Finally, it’s useful to remember the famous line from Seneca: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Writers tend to get increasingly lucky the more work they produce (preparation) and the more work they submit (opportunity).” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 23)

Have you ever noticed how often people sign off with the phrase, “Good luck!”? It’s meant to impart support, well wishes. It sounds nice. It rolls off the tongue easily, so tightly woven is it into our vernacular. We say it a lot, for lots of reasons: When people are about to start a race, say. When they’re about to go into interviews. When they’re going in for major surgery.

The thing is, only the last of these things can really even be remotely said to involve any element of luck. (The doctor could find something else while he’s rooting around in your leg, say.) But for the most part, when we say “Good luck,” we’re usually referring to stuff that can be prepared for, stuff that the subject of “good luck” has worked a really long time towards. Take the marathon, for instance. A runner doesn’t need good luck to cross the finish line; a runner who has signed up for a marathon has probably spent the past few months of his or her life working up to the marathon, building mileage. And the person who’s going into an interview doesn’t need luck to ace it; that person needs to have laid the groundwork to get to the interview in the first place, thereby securing the opportunity to interview; then he or she needs to have prepared for the interview.

Any other situation (going into a marathon badly trained, say, or not researching the potential job ahead of time) will warrant a “Good luck” of a different variety, the one whereby you roll your eyes and adopt sarcastic font and go, “Um, yeah. Good luck with that.”

So I decided awhile ago to stop wishing people good luck. I don’t do it anymore because I want to give people credit for the work they’ve inevitably done in getting to the start line, the interview room, the point where their novel is waiting to be submitted or is deep in progress. (Seriously, the last time someone wished me “good luck” on my novel I almost busted a gasket. I wanted to tell them it has nothing to do with luck; that it’s hard work and my own procrastination; that they could take their luck and shove it right … oh, sorry.)

Right around the time I stopped wishing people good luck, I started to notice my own response to when people would compliment me on the coolness of my job as a writer or editor. “How awesome is that?” they’d say, and I’d return, inevitably and with great enthusiasm, “Mmmhmmm! It is! I got lucky.”

But an older friend was not fooled, nor was she taken by what I now realize was a repeated lame attempt at modesty. “Nope. Nope. Not luck. Work. Dedication,” she said.

Well…yeah. And passion, maybe. A little bit of recklessness. But she was right: Not luck.

Since I’ve stopped looking at events in my life as lucky, and stopped wishing people good luck, I’ve been able to appreciate more deeply the work that goes into the various elements of our lives. I’m so grateful for this tiny shift of perspective. It changes things, when you realize how much “luck” you’ve been sowing your own life with, just by dint of good preparation and creating opportunities for yourself. I think it behooves us to recognize the same preparation in others.

You don’t have to stop wishing people good luck. But I do have a few parting thoughts for you:

  • Assess the good things currently in your life: What work went into making them happen? Jot these down somewhere.
  • When you want to wish someone “Good luck,” ask yourself what you’re really hoping will happen for them that day.
  • Consider the people in your life who have helped you to get where you are. You might consider yourself lucky to have them in your life, but I’m betting it wasn’t luck that brought you together.

Now, instead of wishing people “good luck,” I wish them all the very best. What phrases do you use besides “good luck”? Tell me in the comments below.

 

No Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On Networking: Live-Blogging Jane Friedman’s _The Business of Being a Writer_

I’m a huge fan of making a living off of doing what I love. If this sounds obvious, or cliché, consider that so many writers don’t believe they can earn enough to have a career in writing: It’s a “hobby,” or a “passion” rather than a job. This makes me crazy.

I’m not the only one: writer and editor Jane Friedman also believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

…”When you see a successful writer and try to trace their path to success, keep in mind that what you see are only the visible aspects of what they have done. Behind the scenes are mentors, other relationships, and communities that contributed to their success.” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 17)

I went to a college that worked really hard to help you to understand the value of networking, but I don’t think, when I graduated, that I understood exactly what that meant.

In the summer of 1996, this was underscored to great effect when I got accepted to the prestigious Radcliffe Publishing Course, now moved to Columbia University. At Radcliffe, it was easy to be dazzled: Morgan Entrekin. Steve Florio. The editor who had acquired Ethan Hawke’s first foray into fiction–these were just a few people who came to speak to us about their work. Mornings and afternoons were lectures and exercises. And every afternoon, there was sherry hour, where the guest faculty would be on hand to talk in a casual setting to us about–well, I don’t know what. I never actually spoke with any of them outside of class. But I do know that when I graduated from RPC, after six weeks of classes and getting lost on the Harvard campus, I was pretty sure that I would land a job, no problem. I had three job offers, one of which came from someone who was an RPC graduate herself, and took that one.

Later, when I was looking for another job, I turned to RPC. And nothing came of it. Years later, when I was launching my book, I turned to RPC again. And nothing came of that, either.

Wanna know why? Because I didn’t invest in any of those relationships. I learned a lot about publishing, some of which I still use today, and I met a lot of really great people, and I utterly failed to leverage any relationships with people who were in decision-making positions.

I really only made a few close friends while I was at Radcliffe. One of those girls became my first New York roommate; the other was a pretty steady friend throughout my life in New York.

Later, when I had a bona fide freelance career of my own and a lot more experience with, uh, basic people skills, I applied to be a member of a critique group. One of them I stuck with for a couple of months, the other I was part of for a whole few years, I think. And then at some point I decided to go for my master of fine arts, because, despite my relative success with marketing copy and personal essays and short stories, the big Kahuna of my writing career was still escaping me: I had drafted several novels, had them critiqued, sent them to agents, with no success: I had a plot problem. An MFA would fix it.

At the MFA, I made a lot of friends. I met a ton of guest faculty members, and I worked really hard to keep in touch with the ones whose work really resonated with me. I revised my novel (the third of three manuscripts I had knocking around in my drawer) during the MFA, drew up synopses and query letters, and finally sold the damn thing a year and a half after graduation. (I fixed my plot problem.)

But I did not do this in a vacuum, like I went through the Radcliffe course. (I have just remembered I had a boyfriend that summer, too, which is…like, dumb. I was not on campus a lot. I missed out on a lot!) Because our MFA had residencies, we were all basically breathing each other’s work and stories and stuff for ten days, twice a year. So when I went to revise the book, I leaned on members of my co-hort. When I agonized over plot issues, I turned to my co-hort. When I could not see the way out of a synopsis, I turned to my co-hort.

When I pitched the thing, I leaned on faculty members I had met, both to introduce me to their agents and to take a first look at the thing as agents. And I also kept in touch with faculty members I just liked, as people, even if their work wasn’t remotely related to the work I was pitching.

Fast forward, okay? The book sold, everyone who had had a hand in it championed it, it went into its fourth printing four months after its release date. Some college professors (one of whom I met via my MFA) taught it in classes.

At my first bookstore event, at Women and Children First, in Chicago, lots of people showed up, including some members of that long-ago critique group. And some new friends I’d met recently on the Internet. And the girl who used to live upstairs from us, ten long years before my book ever was a possibility.

While I was in Chicago, I also did a library event. It had been set up by a woman I met at my brother’s wedding. And later that month, I did a few more events in Michigan, which had been set up by a woman I met on Twitter, when we were both working on marketing projects that involved running.

I also want to point out, briefly, that I got into literary magazine editing because of an alumna of my MFA program. And I run a writer’s retreat with some members of my MFA co-hort. And that members of the disaster-relief agency I volunteer for support my writing and my on-the-side watercolor work. And that I’m part of a really supportive online group of marketing and copy experts who help each other through everything, including harrowing book launches and the day my dog was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease and then cancer. That group not only supports my creative work, they also hire me.

I’m only a part of that group because one of the women in it read an essay of mine that she liked, and reached out.

Someone I published a few years ago at Tahoma Literary Review invited me to be on a panel last year, and on this panel with me was a woman who now runs a writing center. Our literary magazine will now partake in the writing conference the center sponsors. And earlier this year, when I was doing some research on a topic I was fairly new to, I reached out to a writer I had published and spoken to extensively in the editing process. And a guy I met at a conference four years ago had me on a panel two years ago with a woman I just had teach at the writer’s retreat I mentioned earlier.

I think I have finally learned what it means to network. What it really means is contributing to a community (Friedman addresses the concept of “literary citizenship” on pages 19-21).

Listen. You never know where you’ll find the supporters of your success. I like to think of them as my people, because it’s not just that they’re supporting me, is it? We all support each other’s work, eventually. So keep your eyes open, sure, but also be cognizant that not everyone you meet will be a connection, or should be leveraged. It all works best when it happens naturally.

Lessons learned, and tips:

  • Meeting someone really high up is great, but you might get more mileage out of someone you meet who’s at your same “level.” If you’re working on a novel, you’ll have more to talk about with someone who’s also working on a novel, for instance. There’s also more give-and-take in this relationship; you are more likely to be able to return the favor to someone who’s working at your level. (Steve Florio was never going to read my short fiction and pass it on to The New Yorker‘s Fiction Editor, amirite?)
  • Get to know the people who are “outside your genre.” This is in quotes, because I think maybe some folks think that only writers want to hear about writing. Or that you should only be spending time with editors and writers and agents, if you’re going to take your craft seriously. Well, that might be true for some, but it wasn’t for me. People who want to hear from you are out there, and the ripple effect is powerful. Our world is highly connected now, so don’t think you should just be talking to people who are “literary.”
  • Don’t be afraid to reach out for a deeper relationship. Some of my closest acquaintances—and friends–are people I met via Twitter first, and then in real life. (My mother still cannot get over this.) It is a remarkable time to be a writer—and a person in general. My life is richer for the people I have met via the Internet.
  • Confidence in your own work and status can help in networking. When I went to Radcliffe, I think I probably wasn’t as confident as I would have liked to be. When you’re presented with a golden networking opportunity like the six weeks of that course, you want to be ready to take advantage of it, feel like you have something to contribute to the conversation. But don’t worry—opportunities do present themselves when you’re ready to take them on.

Next time around we’ll tackle something little lighter: how much “luck” plays into publishing.

Who do you see as being supporters of your success? Tell me in the comments below.

 

 

2 Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Snippets

It has been what feels like an obscenely long time since I’ve blogged.

In the meantime, my book had its birthday and we had ten days’ worth of houseguests, and then I went to Seoul to participate in the Rotary International Convention on behalf of ShelterBox, and then I had a most extraordinary time being carted around South Korea, talking about writing and publishing with interested parties all around.

Truly, I lead a charmed life.

On the last day of lectures, a grueling 4 hours of talking broken up by a pleasant hour-long lunch, I got a note from one of the attendees in the audience. Having evidence of the work we did together outside of Instagrammable, social media fodder in my hands, a tiny little craft-paper envelope with precise writing on it, still warm from her hands, is such a present. I, too, may take to carrying around little cards, the better to thank people in tangible fashion, on the fly. How much we can learn from each other!

IMG_4307

Over my three days with the Embassy, I met some other characters, people I’ll forever be grateful with for making it so obvious that sharing what I’ve learned with others is bound to be a most gratifying existence.

The Old Storyteller: He comes to many of the American Corner Daegu’s events. He speaks pretty spot-on English and has stories he wants to pass on, but he’s 85 and wanted to know what I would tell someone like him, someone who’s tried to write but can’t seem to do it. Time is short, he says. “When should I quit trying?”

The Anxious Girl: “You said we should write every day. Well, I draw every day. Is that okay?” Later, meeting me one-on-one, her hands shook as she tried to turn to a page in her notebook. I mis-stepped, asked if she wanted an autograph, like her classmates, but no, she wanted to show me her drawings, and boy! Were they something! Reptile claws over a planet overgrown with trees and scrub and vines; silhouetted people standing at the hearts of planets, trees rising out through their heads…Yes, yes, write every day, but geez, don’t stop doing these, ever.

The Concerned Citizens: “I wanted to know if you consider yourself a feminist.” And “You say we should fight the efficient fight when it comes to unfairness in the workplace. What is the best way for writers to do this?” And, “As a writer, do you think Donald Trump is exercising free speech?”

The Enthusiastic One: “You’re my very first author ever.”

The Worrier: “I think I carry around so much of what people say in critiques. How do you know what to take and what not to take?”

The Interpreter: Did you know that, during simultaneous interpretation, interpreters have to switch out every ten or fifteen minutes? It’s that grueling.

The Single Girl: My handler over the three days in Korea was this amazing young woman who has no plans of getting married and no plans for kids. She’s truly a career woman, a person who’s constantly curious, always living, it seems, whether that take the form of hiking up Seoul’s beautiful hills or scouting locations for visitors like me or enjoying whatever it is she’s eating. I wish we could have spent more time together.

The Veteran: “Could you sign this for me? I want to show our young people what we can do with our creativity. And I want to show them what we Orientals [sic] can do when we go abroad.”*

What a terrific three days. How lucky I am!

*No, I’m not offended. It’s a dated phrase, and the guy was near 80.

 

No Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Turning over a new leaf

So I turned in my revised thesis to my adviser a little while ago. A little under a week ago. Since then I’ve felt adrift, kind of like I did after Ironman, like I’d been training forever for something and then the thing happened and suddenly I had nothing to train for and nothing to worry about.

Which, really, isn’t very true, because I still have to pitch the thing and write query letters and I still have to go back to school and my second reader has to approve it. But–the bulk of the work is done.

Since I turned the thing in I’ve been twiddling my thumbs insofar as new work goes; I even kept the big thermometer chart and all the index cards that were my thesis outline up on the wall, just in case–what? just in case I had to rewrite the whole damn book?

Right. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Still, I couldn’t stomach taking any of it down. I  have another idea I want to write about, even, but–anyway.

But then I went to the Lake Tahoe area for a writer’s retreat. There were great editors there and other writers, folks who have published or are working on publishing, and there was this:

And I got to talk to an editor and other writers about this idea of mine, which actually has a first-draft manuscript attached to it, and I got to meet Ami, who is awesome and who I’ve previously only known because of the Interwebs, and that was awesome, and then I got stuck in Reno overnight.

And I was annoyed.

But I called it research, because part of my thesis takes place in Vegas, and I had forgotten about the noise the clinkety clank jarring of the casino machines, and also the weirdness that is a casino on a Sunday night and then, subsequently, on a Monday morning at 8AM. And then I went for a jog along the Truckee River:

and saw these guys:

and then even when I got to the airport and I realized that my flight was going to be delayed by 2.5 hours, I still felt okay, because I was antsy for the first time in a long, long while; antsy to start something new.

So when I finally got back home and I had had a shower and a nice night’s sleep and I could see straight, I went to my wall and I took down all of the index cards and my thermometer chart and tapped all my notes and marked-up MSs into a pile and put it all away. This week and next I’m reading novels in the vein of the one I’m getting ready to write, and the week after that I may start writing the outline.

Maybe it’s something about being near the water. (Now that I live where I live, being around water–pools of it; good rushing streams of it–is really nice, and rare.) Maybe it’s something about being in great company.

Or maybe it’s just about it being time. Any which way, I’ll take it.

 

4 Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Hunkering down

And now, for something completely different:

What is that? It’s my office wall, and it’s also something I’ve never tried before. It’s outlining. [Please ignore the fugly wood paneling. It is not my fault and soon I will be painting it something else, since my life has become a DIY show.]

Here’s a close-up:

On each of the yellow index cards is a full scene. On each of the white, is, dur, the MC’s location at that point in the book. My thesis adviser thinks this is going to be a one-month draft. I think, okay, I’m game for that.

And the other part of me thinks, oh, hell, it’d better be a one-month draft. Otherwise I’m might close to deadline.

So let’s just see how this goes, shall we? Two scenes a day. Let’s just see.

2 Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On Narrative

Some days, a good story is all you need. But to tell a story that sticks, a narrative needs more. Two critical illustrations of this crossed my desk recently, and I thought I’d share them with you.

First, let me call your attention to this spot, which ran during the Super Bowl. (You didn’t see if you live in the U.S.) It’s well worth its two minutes.

 

All right? Get your Kleenex? C’mon, blow your nose. I’ll wait.

This is a far cry from the beer commercials we’ve been subjected to in the past. There are no swiping remarks about how women age; there aren’t any animals being voiced over; there’s no bizarre new bottle or can design. (None of these has anything to do with beer, and none of these can improve on the taste of some of this beer.)

So what makes this spot work?

It’s the emotional core. The best commercials or advertisements tell a good story, but even most of those ignore the need for consumers to connect with the brand on an emotional level. The spot works because it tells a story everyone loves–an underdog story–and it gives viewers what they want: a happy ending.

Perhaps more important, it reminds us of a time when we, too, were underdogs, and when we, too, wanted to be cheered on. (What is that, like, every day?)

Most important, it locks the viewer into a time and place: a scruffy amateur hockey game isn’t the place for a high-falutin’ microbrew; it’s the place for communal cheer; for beer that everyone can afford and enjoy; for idiotic, non-cerebral joy. Budweiser has tapped into the whole point of a cheap beer: feel-good times, with your friends. This is what their brand is, and I wish they’d do more with it.

So that’s one half of narrative–getting to your emotional core. What’s the other half?

Let me tell you another story: Recently, Mr. Gooddirt and I went out to eat at a really amazing restaurant.

We’d never been there before, so why were we so sure this restaurant would be “amazing”? Well, we’re kind of sustainability nuts, so we liked that the restaurant uses only produce from one of its two farms in the northeast. We’ve also eaten at other dining establishments that use the tasting-menu concept, just like this one does, so we had high expectations that went along with the higher price points at this type of restaurant. (Once you add in the wine pairings, which we almost always do, you’re looking at a cool $300 per person.)

So in that way, the restaurant had its narrative lined up straight and true. We knew enough about it to already expect good things. We got there early, for drinks at the front of the house, and were pleased to meet a bartender whose knowledge  was absolutely in line with our expectations. He could tell us about the distilling and aging process of his whiskey, for instance.

photo: Gothamist

I anticipated an exceptional meal, and got one. Every single one of our eight courses was above and beyond what I expected; the flavors were complementary, if, in some places, totally unexpected; the quality of the food was unparalleled, without resorting to gimmick.

So what was missing? Service, service, service. We had one head waiter who depended on four or five rotating sub-waiters (?) to serve and explain the food. That’s appropriate for so many courses; but it quickly becomes an annoyance when none of the sub-waiters understands what they’re serving and has to defer to the head-waiter (who, in turn, looked harried and annoyed) for any questions.

There’s where the narrative broke down: This restaurant prides itself on the quality of its produce and its goods. They should expect that their customers will want to know more about their food and how it’s prepared (at one point, they brought out a wheat ale made from an ancient strain of wheat; and we wanted to know more). Towards that end, they should make sure that every staff person is well educated and cares as much about the stuff they’re selling as the head waiter or proprietor does.

Two final straws broke this camel’s back: First, our bill was wrong, in our favor, and we had to ask them to correct it. Second, when we got outside to our car, we found it there waiting, warm and toasty, with the seat heaters turned on. “Hunh! What a nice touch!” we said. And then we thought to check and see just how long they’d had the car idling for.

People. It’d been idling for AN HOUR AND TEN MINUTES. Complete and total breakdown of sustainability narrative. We lost it. I phoned the restaurant immediately and got an appropriately contrite young lady, and the following day I got a phone call from the operations director  and the outsourced valet service. So that was nice. But who’s going to pay for my $20 worth of gas?

I digress.

Here’s the thing, okay? Story is one thing. Have a good story, and you’re winning half the battle already. But honestly, if you–and I mean you as marketer, brand executive, novelist, copy-writer, restauranteur–don’t have your emotional core built into your narrative, you’re almost bound to build something forgettable.

Likewise, consistency is key. Make sure that everyone in your organization understands your emotional core and the point of your narrative. Make them buy into it. After our experience at the bar, we were sold on the bar–we were making lists of friends who needed to see the place and experience it. It was like that until about a quarter of the way through the dinner, when we realized that only the head waiter knew what he was talking about. And by the time we got to the problem with the valet, we were seriously questioning what we’d previously believed was a real need to get our friends to this restaurant ASAP.

Our restaurant? Great narrative and emotional core; total breakdown of consistency. Budweiser? Great narrative in this instance; game-changing recognition of emotional core that I wish would happen more frequently with them.

The lesson? Find your story. Be true to it. Be consistent. You can’t go wrong that way.

 

7 Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Holy caca

I have an incredible backlog of posts to write, but I’m at SeaTac now, and my brain is still buzzing buzzing with ideas and MFA stuff. I’m waiting for my usual lovely 11:36 PM flight to Dulles and then home to HPN, and I’m thankful for the extra time to just sit in a place with no emotions and personality whatsoever, so I can jot down some of the great people we met and the things we learned from them. We even got to have dinner together, Chels, Stefon, and I, before Stefon dropped me off at the airport in plenty of time to find a check in, get a brainless book at the bookstore, window shop a bit. Now I have about an hour to mellow out and process.

I love this flight for this reason. Red eyes are not my favorite, but this one gives me solid time to be alone for awhile, listen to some music (Coleman Hawkins at the moment), and try to make sense of it all.

It was by far the best residency ever. Not only do I feel settled in as a student, now (it’s my last full semester, if I can get my thesis pulled off), we had an incredible list of writers, editors, and agents come trooping through our doors to offer us lots of good nuggets of useful information that I can put to use in my work soon.

Among these were, in order of appearance:

Alan Rinzler. Alan is the editor of such writers as Joseph Hellerman, Norman Mailor, Toni Morrison, Claude Brown…eurgh. The list goes on. He is a gentle soul of infinite proportions and equal wisdom. I have a lot to learn from him, and I’m looking forward to continued correspondence, even if via such far-away venues as his ‘blog, on which he posts great editorial tips and tricks–and, occassionally weighs in on things like social marketing for writers. Lovely.

My colleague Charlotte Morganti spent an hour with Alan distilling some of what he taught us. Her interview is up at her blog.

Deb Lund. Deb is appearing early in this list even if she was one of our very last presenters. This is because Deb cared enough to show up early in the week and get to know us. It’s true, she does live on Whidbey Island, and so it was “easy” for her, but she was kind and lovely and she became a part of our campus very easily.

Deb is the author of some fun fun fun fun! picture books, but she is also the originator of some really effective writing tricks for writers, including those of us not working on picture books. The last day of residency is always a critical day because we have had nine days of lectures and we are up to the gills with information and learning. Still, she managed to keep us all excited and writing, and creating even when we thought it’d be impossible. Fantastic.

Lauri McLean. Laurie is an agent at Larsen-Pomada, San Francisco’s oldest literary agency. (I think.) More important, she truly understands writers. Even more important, she is of the same mind as me when we think of marketing. In fact, I asked Laurie within minutes of meeting her to sit in on the class I held at Whidbey this residency. What a treat. We have some upcoming things going on together, so I am assured I’ll get to see her again–this makes me very, very happy. It’s so nice to meet someone of like mind! I’ll never get tired of it.

Melissa Manlove. Melissa is a children’s book editor. I’ve yet to meet one I don’t like. But this one…this one…well. let’s put it this way: Randomly, Stefon and I broke out into the theme song from the Muppets over lunch. Melissa pitched right in. And she knew all the words. This was right after Stefon, Chels, Melissa and I finished drafting the storyboard for our soon-to-be-award-winning children’s picture book, Are You My Hostage? It is a charming coming-of-age story about a bumbling bank robber who must find his way in the complicated world of larceny. Along the way, he discovers his hostage’s favorite food; that he really mustn’t bring his laundry to a robbery, and other truths.

Hunh! Oh, and the editing thing: Melissa is a really, really good editor. She understands stories. She had good ways to get to the heart of them. She makes me want to get to know my characters better.

Cheston Knapp. It is so rare that one gets to invite the managing editor of a fine literary magazine over for Scotch. Rarer still that he stays until 1AM, talking about everything from floppy hair to glossy crackers that only look inedible. There is talk about books and work and general happiness and suddenly the entire bottle of Scotch is gone, and it is time for bed. Lovely, especially in the company of other smart writers, who also happen to be friends.

And that doesn’t even include my regular faculty, or any of the other fantastic writers studying with me.

Often when I return I am incapable of much of anything. Tomorrow I will return home to an empty apartment, and I will be lonely, at least until Jim comes home at 5 or so, but I will snap on the TV and watch some classic films and talk myself off the ledge of wanting to dedicate my entire life to being a crazed solitary writer, if only because a girl must eat and a girl likes to be social.

But sitting here, alone but not alone, it is easy to think that I can take what I learned from this past residency and eat from it and only it until I pop, and I’d probably have some fine, fine work when I was done, and that that would be enough to sustain me for a very, very long time.

*Yawn.* I’m going to read something new now.

8 Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

A New Way of Seeing

Wow, am I cranky. Peeps, I am so cranky I can hardly believe it. I think I would be lying if I said I don’t know why, so I’ll just try to talk you through it.

1. I am scheduled to do a half-marathon on trail October 2. That’s this weekend, and I have been looking forward to it for a long time now.

2. I have been plagued by injury.

3. Now we are less than a week before the race, and although I know I won’t have a problem completing the race, I’m now in a position where I don’t feel like I can log in anymore miles because I’m terrified of hurting myself before the race. (This is because the last injury was two weeks ago, when I pulled a heretofore-unknown muscle in my pelvis during a routine speed workout.)

4. Therefore, although I’ve been undertaking normal activities, and some not so normal, like tottering around in 3.5-inch heels to and from dinner and a Baptism and walking around Manhattan in a pair of not-smart sandals that obviously hve lost their cushioning, I have not been working out, and my body is PISSED.

5. Therefore, I am pissed. But still cautious about hurting myself before the race.

This is a ridiculous, self-fulfilling prophecy. So I am ignoring it, and trying to alleviate The Cranky.

Today I want to talk to you about art. This past weekend we had some friends in town from Chicago, and we visited both the Neue Galerie and The Met, and the following day we walked over the Hudson River on the Walkway and then went to the FDR Presidential Home and Library. Then we had dinner at the Culinary Institute of America, from which Jim’s father graduated.  If that seems like a lot of culture, it was, but it was also full of art in all its aspects: natural, historical, visual, and culinary.

I did not have my camera with me, and my Blackberry has decided it Does Not Want to Take Photos anymore, so I had to rely on others for those. (This, incidentally, is another reason for The Cranky.) But this is a good opportunity for me to share with you my latest endeavor, which is to be a better recorder of life through not only words and type, but also visual arts.

Some of you may remember that I took some art lessons awhile back. This is me and my art instructor, Jan Cianflone:

We are on her porch, the last day of my art lesson, just before I went to Whidbey. Towards the end our lessons took place en plein air.

Jan ran me through several different media. We started with pencil and charcoal and spherical objects. Here’s a photo of some eggs:

And here’s the chiaroscuro charcoal I did of those same eggs:

We also did some gesture drawings, which I really enjoyed, from magazine pages. Fashion magazines are good for these, since the models tend to be lanky and long and the shoots tend to be of exaggerated poses. I wish I still had the actual page this came from. This is a 3-minute gesture drawing.

From there we moved into pencil washes. I really enjoyed working with the more suggestive lines of these, as opposed to the more definitive lines of plain pencil.

and then we moved into pen-and-ink, which I really loved, but only in this one case, because, as it turns out, you can’t mix color as well in these big markers as you can in something like watercolor. Although, I did love the broad stroke of the pens…

We did some drawing from life of my favorite hairy subject. (I call this the Grandma-Moses Sprocket.)

And from there, I was on my own. It was a remarkable six weeks, and although I’m still experimenting and learning, here are some of the results:

The Whidbey dock. I’m not happy with this drawing. I love the loose evocation of the trees at the top of the drawing, but I’ve really done a hack job on the dock, which looks cartoony and stiff. I know a lot of this is me learning my own style, but it’s definitely frustrating to see something like this.

I drew it from life, but, for comparison, at an obviously different time of day, here’s a photo.

Later on in the week, I did this drawing, which is of a house that sits on the lagoon near where we had our afternoon classes. I got really lost in the grasses near the bottom of the drawing and just didn’t have the energies or the know-how or the artistic balls to try and complete the suggestion of river that ran along the lawn of the house.

On my way home from Whidbey, I tried to do a marker-and-ink drawing of an airplane at its gate. When I looked up again, the airplane had disappeared. Sigh.

Here’s my most recent drawing:

Personally, it’s my favorite. For comparison, here’s the photo:

I want to get to a point where I can suggest things better and allow the viewer to make their own interpretations. But i guess a girl has to start someplace.

There are many more drawings I want to do. I still haven’t covered my beloved city, or the lovely impressionistic photos of Seattle I took at night, when the iPad camera will only suggest light and glimmer. I think those will be next.

Ultimately, I hope the drawing will inform my writing. It’s only just now occurred to me, actually, that the protagonist in the novel I’m writing for my thesis is an artist. Lately, she and I haven’t been communicating very well, and my adviser has suggested that I spend the day in her shoes, so I’m doubly glad that I took lessons with Jan.

It’s always nice to have another way of seeing things.

2 Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

The People in My Neighborhood: In Memoriam, Chris Hondros

I’m still pretty shaken up by the death of Getty Images photographer Chris Hondros.

When I met him, I was a fairly good way through my short-lived freelance editorial career, and, arguably, at the peak of it. I was a contributing editor for Hooked on the Outdoors magazine, about a half-year away from getting hired on to work in advertising sales, and I was loving every minute of it.

It was early fall of 2000, and I pitched a story to the now-defunct Hooked about the surfing scene in New Jersey. I called it “Surfing the Right Coast.” My editor John liked it enough that he sent me to cover it as a feature and assigned an up-and-coming photographer named Chris Hondros to cover it with me. Chris was already working with Getty at the time, and I picked him up just outside of his Varick street offices. He was in a sueded brown blazer, jeans, and loafers, and I thought, “Oh boy, is this guy going to be okay?”

Chris was more than okay. He scooted here and there, huge lenses strapped all over, and ended up taking some awesome photos of the surfing competition that was taking place. Perhaps most important to me, he took some beautiful portraits that, when they appeared on the thick glossy stock that Hooked used, popped from the page and pinned down the wistful, evocative feel of a surfing competition that would always remain on the outskirts of the surf scene no matter how many top competitors it turned out, and no matter how much environmentalism was at heart.

Fluffy stuff, for sure, especially when compared to the conflicts that Chris would eventually go on to cover. Chris also shot some photos of me later, for a short essay I wrote on my fear of sharks and the surfing lesson that took place the same day as the surf competition. Of course I’ll treasure those. I remember seeing them in the magazine and thinking to myself, “That looks just like me, and it’s exactly the way I’d want a photo of me in a magazine to appear.”

That was Chris, in a nutshell. He was a student of individuals, and he captured them exactly as they were doing or saying the things that were their very essences.

We became friends that day, and saw each other quite a few times after we’d filed the story.

Last night, while I was struggling to find some peace with the fact that Chris has essentially been murdered (he was hit by an RPG while covering the Libyan conflict), I remembered something else: Chris was present at my 26th birthday party at the Half King. It was, in part, such a memorable event because of the photos Chris took that night with my rinky dinky point-and-shoot film Kodak, a cheap model I picked up at Rite Aid in Queens. I took a lot of pictures that year, and I took that stupid camera wherever I went. Chris was one of the first to arrive, and I remember him picking it up and turning it over in his hand, twice, looking bemused.

After he was done inspecting it, he held the thing above his head and shot ten, twelve good photos of the party from above, and then he got up on a stool, kneeling, and shot some more. They were wonderful photographs. Chris wasn’t an event photographer by any means. But I do remember getting those photos back, and loving almost every single one of them.

Of course, he’s not in any of them. But then again, that wasn’t what he was about, was it?

Later that year, my then-boyfriend and I went to celebrate New Year’s with Chris and his friends. At the time, Chris was living smack in the middle of Times Square, on 43rd street. We went up to the roof to celebrate. It’s the best vantage point I ever have had of Times Square, and the closest I ever want to get to the heaving mass of humanity that is the NYE celebration there. I’ve often thought of how wonderful it was to spend NYE in Chris’ company, and I wrote the scene of that party into my first novel attempt later.

We saw each other after that, well into the new year (2001, it would have been). We spent not a few evenings at bars in each others’ company, slugging back beer and the occasional whiskey, I think, although I may have fabricated the whiskey part of it.

These are my scraps of memory then: a few time-stamped photographs; some e-mails lost in the ether; memories of his voice over the line and across a couple of bar tables, the friendly brown eyes and raised eyebrows–“Tell Uncle Chris about it,” coquettishly–the constantly scruffy face, and that damned jacket he wore when I first met him, the one that made an appearance everywhere, it seemed.

My memories are nowhere near the events and images that made him famous later on. You won’t find our little article on his web page; and he probably didn’t think of me much over the past few years, nor did I think of him all that much, except for when I came across his byline, which was, okay, frequent, and always with the thrill that he’d gone from what we did together to this life. Always there was a frisson of worry and a silent wish that he’d stay safe.

These are the things I remember. I am honored to have shared a byline with him. Happy he graced my life. Infinitely sad that he won’t be around for me to look up when I get a wild hair, dial the number that lived in my Rolodex for years, gathering dust. Maybe I’d hear the warm voice again.

He was a good man, a good friend, whenever I called. My work is better because of his work. Here is Chris’ web site. I hear he has a son, a 3-year-old. Maybe one day I will bring by the clips, show little Hondros the faces his father captured before he his work launched him onto the world stage as an important voice in conflict photography.

Or maybe I’ll just keep it to myself. For now, here are the pages of our work together. I will miss you, Chris. Thank you for sharing the byline.

UPDATE:
In lieu of flowers, the loved ones of Chris Hondros kindly request donations be made to The Chris Hondros Fund. This fund will provide scholarships for aspiring photojournalists and raise awareness of issues surrounding conflict photography.
The Chris Hondros Fund
c/o Christina Piaia
50 Bridge Street #414
Brooklyn, New York 11201

4 Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

The 30-Day Experiment: How’d It Go?

About a month ago, I told you all that I was going to do five things for 30 days straight. So, what were the results?
Here:

  1. Drink a glass of water every morning: 100%
  2. Make our bed every morning: 100%*
  3. Write a one-page diary entry longhand every day: 93%
  4. Go to the gym or do something physically strenuous every day: 76%
  5. Read at least the headlines of one entire section of the newspaper that arrives at my door each morning: 0%

So what now? Well, let’s look at why I picked these five items to begin with.

The water thing was about the fact that I woke up dehydrated every morning. That and the making-the-bed thing were also both about establishing a mini-routine that would help me to feel more organized in the morning. (Somehow, brushing my teeth, washing my face, and making coffee wasn’t enough of a routine.) And then, it’s kind of nice to walk by the bedroom and not see a rumpled mass of sheets and blankets every time I go past it.

Numbers 3, 4, and 5 are all about things I badly want in my life but hadn’t found the focus for previously. To be more specific, I’m more organized when I can take five or 10 minutes each night to jot down what happened during the day, and clear my mind of any extraneous garbage that might disturb my sleep, like pissiness over the way a meeting went, or the way a friend’s been treating me, or the way I’ve been treating a friend.

Working out every day was sort of a physical experiment. How long could I keep that up for without a break? And what would it do to my body?

Reading the newspaper was about being a better citizen of the world. And about cutting down on waste. Every day that I do read the newspaper, I find something I care about, something of interest.

So. Here are my conclusions.

1&2. I like starting the day with a little automatic movement and routine. I’ll keep these habits and probably build on them. In the last week of the experiment I started getting up at 6:30 with Jim and walking to the train station, where he catches his shuttle to work. Sprocket got an extra two miles–and I got an extra-early start to the day, which meant I could knock off earlier and not feel guilty if I was sitting in a beam of sunlight, reading, at 4PM.

3. I liked bookending my day with a focused task like this. It was nice to recap the day. There was a time when I wondered how people could fit everything they thought into one day, or even half a page.

really? merely a page for a day? yes, but not with restrictions like this. Photo: Levenger

But I could see how it would be soothing, to know that you only had to get to the end of the page and then you could stop or go on. And, unlike my previous practice of making lists for the next day each night, this freer form allowed me room to rant if I wanted to. I still like the night-before list. Good way to ensure that everything’s out of mind and safely on paper where you won’t forget it. But you can’t rant, or worry, or muse, on a list. You can with a nice blank sheet.

I used to do stuff like this all the time. What happened?

4. I have a love-hate affair with fitness. I’ve raced in countless events and even done Ironman. So what’s my block? I still don’t know, but I believe I am closer to solving the puzzle with these 30 days. I kept up the streak for 12 days straight. And then I had to travel one day, and that sort of screwed the pooch. But do you know what? I was so much stronger for the day off. I know, DUH, right?

Still, my experiment reinforced the need for balance. I love being outdoors, and often, a walk in the woods is so much more rejuvenating than a session on the Cybex. And then, friends also make everything so much better. Towards the end of my 30 days, some friends signed up for a June triathlon. I tagged along. Getting outside with friends reminded me how important it is to have people to train with, and folks to egg you on.

Linda, me and Jim on North County Trail

Then, too, it’s been very wintry here, so the days I was tempted to go outside were limited. I’m still not sure what I want to do with this, but now that it’s spring (although it’s snowed here for the past two days, or sleeted), my options will include many more outdoors miles. Either way, I’m stronger for this past month. In total I skipped seven days out of the 30, two of those for illness, two for travel, and three cos I was just plain lazy and couldn’t be arsed.

5. Oh, my newspaper. my beloved newspaper. I can’t give this up. I get so much out of it when I do sit down to it. But it almost never happens. Must approach this with renewed vigor. Maybe with looser parameters. But at which point do I abandon ship and just go to e-version? This would make me cry, by the way. I once had a nightmare about giving up the newspaper. Yes, really.

There are varying opinions on how long it takes a habit to form. One article I found said 21 days; another said 68! My take is that the habits you form are the ones that truly, deep down, do something for you.

I have a new challenge for myself. This one is just because I’m curious. Starting today, I will write down everything I eat each day. Will I calorie count? Maybe. I *am* curious.

Here’s the takeaway from my 30-day experiment.

*I don’t seem to be in danger of letting exercise either run my life or escape from it entirely. I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.

*So, too, for the glass of water, the making of the bed, and the daily longhand diary.

*I’m giving the newspaper another crack. I’m just not willing to give up the feel of it.

And here’s what I’ve consumed today, so far:

(2) eggs in (1) tblsp corn oil + 1/2 c salsa

(2) cups coffee w (2) tabls half and half

(2) packets emergen-C w 16 oz. water.

Are you bored yet?

2 Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.