Friday, September 19, 2014

The Power of Trying

By Susan

Over the past few weeks, I've had several conversations with writing friends that seem to circle around the same topic: how to piece together an artistic life and pay the bills at the same time.

Some of these friends are recent graduates from MFA programs wondering what comes next, and some are working full-time "real" jobs, desperate to get away. Some are teaching and don't want to be. Some are scattering themselves hither and yon, working multiple jobs and frantically seeking time to write.  Some have completed novels and are looking at next steps. All need to write. All need to pay bills on time.

I'm not sure there is an answer to this quandary. In our American culture, our values line up with fiscal success over the creation of art, literature, and music. Occasionally there is an exception, and an artist reaches the pinnacles of popularity and riches, yet for every superstar author, musician, or painter I would venture to say there are a thousand more producing a high quality of work that goes unrecognized.

This week I took great pleasure in reading The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd. As I read her beautiful prose and marveled at her insight, craft, and language, parts of me felt equally dejected and inspired.  On one hand, I envied her success and talent. On the other, I felt hopeful that one day I could produce a novel that someone else could love, just as I loved this one. And then I came across this exchange between the protagonist, Sarah Grimke, and Lucretia Mott, the well-known abolitionist, suffragist, and social reformer.
 
      'Why would God plant such deep yearnings in us, if they only come to nothing?' It was more a sigh than a question. I was thinking of Charlotte and her longing to be free, but as the words left my mouth, I knew I was thinking of myself, too.
      I hadn't really expected Lucretia to respond, but after a moment, she spoke. 'God fills us with all sorts of yearnings that go against the grain of the world—but the fact those yearnings often come to nothing, well, I doubt that's God's doing.' She cut her eyes at me. 'I think we know that's men's doing.'
      She leaned toward me. 'Life is arranged against us, Sarah. And it's brutally worse for Handful and her mother and sister. We're all yearning for a wedge of sky, aren't we? I suspect God plants these yearnings in us so we'll at least try and change the course of things. We must try, that's all.'
      I felt her words tear a hole in the life I'd made. An irreparable hole.

Maybe that is why we continue to write when faced with financial stress, unhappiness in our careers, and roadblock after roadblock. We're designed to continue pushing toward our greatest desire. For the artist, the financial payoff may not arrive in the way we hope or expect, but as we continue to try, the artistic life can lead to other, unexpected riches. For me, those riches have come in the friendships of like-minded people, the satisfaction of living a life in line with my values, and the happiness found in the act of writing alone. If one's goal in seeking the artistic life is wealth and fame, great disappointment will most likely follow. There is no failure in the act of creating and producing art. Yet to go against your own heart's desires in order to conform to society's standards could be considered a failure, for certain.

All we can do is continue to try. Perhaps in the creation of art, it can be where we find our greatest joy. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Little Girl Be Careful What You Say

A few of my trophies!
by Elizabeth

A huge part of my college experience was participating in Forensics. Not dealing with dead bodies, but Speech and Debate. My favorite events, and the ones at which I most excelled, were under the umbrella of "Oral Interpretation"--basically taking poems and prose and plays and acting them with mostly my voice.

One of my favorite poems in four years of competition was Carl Sandburg's:


Little girl, be careful what you say
when you make talk with words, words—
for words are made of syllables
and syllables, child, are made of air—
and air is so thin—air is the breath of God—
air is finer than fire or mist,
finer than water or moonlight,
finer than spider-webs in the moon,
finer than water-flowers in the morning:
     and words are strong, too,
    stronger than rocks or steel
stronger than potatoes, corn, fish, cattle,
and soft, too, soft as little pigeon eggs,
soft as the music of hummingbird wings.
     So, little girl, when you speak greetings,
when you tell jokes, make wishes or prayers,
     be careful, be careless, be careful.
     be what you wish to be
 
This came to mind recently when I read a couple of articles about a debut novelist and her work. I'm not going to go into specifics or identify the writer or the novel, because I find that as uncool as what I felt the writer did. The book sounded great, challenging and  with an engaging story and lovely prose. A winner, and I had in mind to get myself a copy when it hits the bookstores soon.
 
But then I saw another article, and in it, the writer made a comment that in my opinion called me boring. Me personally, and thinking about it, really almost everyone in my closest circles. No, she didn't actually say "You, Elizabeth Lynd, are not worth talking to," but she might as well have. Yowza.
 
What really bothered me is that the statement was more or less in self defense, and while I have no problem with that, there was no reason to then dismiss the population who had not shared the writer's experiences. What she said was akin to saying something like, if you have never eaten at a five star restaurant, you have no idea what good food tastes like. Really? When she could have just as easily said, if you have eaten at a five star restaurant, you almost certainly know what great food tastes like. Subtle, still gets the opinion across, and not offensive. If you've never had a child you have no idea what love is. Ouch. If you've had children, you definitely understand love. If you've never survived cancer, you don't understand the value of life. If you've survived cancer, you might have a stronger understanding of the value of life than before you were diagnosed. Et cetera.
 
I don't think the writer was trying to put anyone down. I think she was trying to explain her character, her book, and to a certain extent, herself, and make the point that adversity can create a better person. And I agree with that; but I don't agree that someone who is fortunate enough to traverse the planet less scathed than some of her sisters is somehow inferior.
 
It comes down to words. And as writers, we deal in words, the ones we write, and if we are very lucky, the ones we get to say when that writing is shared with the world. Sure, speaking is laden with opportunities for mistakes--my forensics career taught me that time and again--but we are writers, and we know words matter. The ones we write, and the ones we say. The ones that writer spoke cost her my buying her book, cost her me ever reading it probably. A small thing, but the opposite of what she was speaking out for in the first place.
 
As writers, we will hopefully be called to speak. When we do, we should take care. We should be what we wish to be.
 

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Review of Grand Central: Original Stories of Postwar Love and Reunion

By Kim,

Synopsis (from the book jacket):

A war bride awaits the arrival of her GI husband at the platform…

A Holocaust survivor works at the Oyster Bar, where a customer reminds him of his late mother…

A Hollywood hopeful anticipates her first screen test and a chance at stardom in the Kissing Room…

On any particular day, thousands upon thousands of people pass through New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, through the whispering gallery, beneath the ceiling of stars, and past the information booth and its beckoning four-faced clock, to whatever destination is calling them. It is a place where people come to say hello and goodbye. And each person has a story to tell.

Now, ten bestselling authors inspired by this iconic landmark have created their own stories, set on the same day just after the end of World War II, in a time of hope, uncertainty, change, and renewal…

About the authors:

Melanie Benjamin is the NYT bestselling author of The Aviator’s Wife
Jenna Blum is the NYT bestselling author of Those Who Save Us
Amanda Hodgkinson is the NYT bestselling author of 22 Britannia Road
Pam Jenoff is the bestselling author of The Kommandant’s Girl
Sarah Jio is the NYT bestselling author of Blackberry Winter
Sarah McCoy is the bestselling author of The Baker’s Daughter
Kristina McMorris is the NYT bestselling author of Bridge of Scarlet Leaves
Alyson Richman is the bestselling author of The Lost Wife
Erika Robuck is the critically acclaimed author of Call Me Zelda
Karen White is the NYT bestselling author of The Time Between

Review:

I don’t remember the last time I picked up an anthology of short stories, but this one I could not resist. First off, look at that list of authors, several of whom are among my favorites. Second, all the stories take place just after WWII, which is a major selling point with me. Third, I’m in love with the cover.

Let’s talk about that cover a moment, actually, because if a reader were to judge this book solely on its cover, that person may be in for a disappointment. As the title promises, there are love stories in this volume. Not all love stories end well. There are also tales of reunion, though some reunions are more nightmare than bliss.

Grand Central is not a light read. This is a volume filled with stories that made me swoon, filled me with rage, brought on tears, and made me want to reach into the pages to alternately shake and hug a certain character who was about to put herself and her child in terrible danger. (Erika Robuck, I’m looking at you.)

One of the most wonderful things about this collection is that while all the stories could stand on their own, this book was clearly a collaborative effort. That violinist playing in Jenna Blum’s “The Lucky One?” The reader will recognize Gregori from Alyson Richman’s “Going Home.” In Karen White’s “The Harvest Season,” Ginny will see a young woman run through Grand Central calling out the name David. The reader will know that is Ella from Pam Jenoff’s “Strand of Pearls” and, like me, will likely pray she finds her David. Finding connections between the stories became a fun game to play while I read and it certainly kept me from setting the book down often.


Have you read Grand Central? I’d love to know your thoughts.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Adding creativity to your life

by Joan

I love when two unrelated incidents strike in a sort of synchronicity. The first happened when my husband sent me an email with the subject line: Awesomeness. It was a link to LifeHack.org, a cool site with essays and tips on productivity, communication, lifestyle. I clicked and up popped a chart labeled “The Theory of Awesomeness.”

Reflective pool at the Winspear
A simplistic road map to life, the chart suggested that many people chase the wrong goals, following “Brules” (bullshit rules) and chasing money, instead of practicing “Blissipline” (the discipline of bliss) and working toward end goals. Be happy with where you are, practice gratitude, visualize your future, follow your passion, contribute, explore.

“Your true greatness will come when you focus on building a life, not building a career.” This seemed the perfect advice to share with our son, who in his senior year of college is trying to juggle studying and organizational commitments with recruiting season, and becoming ever anxious about life after graduation.

The second random thing happened last week when I joined my husband for a nighttime photo walk with photographer Trey Ratcliff. A Dallas native, Trey was a techie stuck in a cube, day after day, thinking of what he would do with his hour lunch break or free hour at night. What sandwich would he eat, which article would he read in this limited time? He went in search of a creative outlet and is now a successful photographer, writer, speaker, adventurer and blogger. He’s had numerous showings around the world and has been featured on BBC and CBS, among others, and had the first HDR photo to hang in the Smithsonian. Three years ago he relocated to New Zealand, where he’s in the midst of beauty every day, all day. In Trey's view, no matter what your field, fit some form of creativity into your life, wherever you can.
Reflective man, corner of Flora and Olive

As he spoke, I remembered my first job out of college, where I crunched numbers on a ten-key, recorded figures onto ledger paper and prepared tax returns for high-net-worth clients. My desk held file-folders, mechanical pencils, paper clips and those cool gummy erasers, which, to this day, I find alarmingly satisfying. This was my life, but was it life? I often stopped throughout the day to think about what types of cloud shapes were floating above my Connecticut Avenue building, which leaves were oranging up and twirling to the ground, which birds were charming their mates. On my lunch hour I spent my paycheck on a fleeting, stupidly expensive wardrobe, not realizing then the hours I was wasting, when I could have been hacking out a creative life.


Bell Tower, Guadalupe Cathedral
Whether you see the world through a photographic or a literary lens, whether you record it with a pen or a paintbrush, you are fostering beauty. Trey asked why we share what we write or paint or snap? He suggested that we not seek recognition or affirmation from others, for if we find something beautiful then it is. No, rather we share “to make the world more beautiful and interesting.” To spread creativity. To practice Blissipline. I am grateful for clouds and leaves, for the Dallas art's district, for our philosophical son, for my husband, who sends me links to awesomeness and shares with me his creative side.


Photo credits: Rick Mora

Friday, September 5, 2014

A Worthy Cause

By Kim

As many of you know, I will be attending the Writer Unboxed Un-Conference in Salem, MA, this November. I am lucky to be able to swing the trip, but there are others who are not so fortunate. A group of women have banded together to try to help five incredibly deserving members of the Writer Unboxed community make it to the conference this year. Here is their story...
Who are the WriterMamas and what is their goal?
The following is adapted from their home page:
We are a group of women writers who have come together to make it possible for five women writers, who are also mothers with young children, to attend the Writer Unboxed Un-Conference in Salem, Massachusetts, from November 3-7. Without this fundraiser they (like many parent writers, but especially mothers) would not be able to attend. They live in Australia, Spain, and states in America far from Massachusetts, and will require planes and trains to get to the venue. Our goal is to raise enough funds not only to cover travel expenses but also registration, food and lodging, and, most important, child care while these writers are away.
Our initial inspiration to come together for this fundraiser was because we were so excited to meet these five women who are as dear to us as we are to them. We have talked with them daily online for over two years, been inspired by them, and impressed with their dedication to publishing their work and their commitment to writing as a career. When first one, then another, and then three more said the cost of travel and everything involved in attending the event was beyond their financial scope this year, we were dismayed. That’s when the idea of this fundraiser was born.
As writers we know the importance of being able to leave the responsibilities of daily life behind for a short while in order to write without distractions. The Writer Unboxed Un-Conference in November will give our five sister writers that opportunity in spades. This event is designed to maximize time to write every day for four days.
If you would like to help five very deserving women make it to the Writer Unboxed Un-Conference, here are a few simple ways to contribute.

Make a Donation

Pop on over to the WriterMamas GiveForward page and make a donation. Even if all you can spare is $5, we would all appreciate it. Of course, you’re welcome to donate more than $5. Any and all donations are gratefully accepted.

Buy cool Writer Unboxed merchandise
This fundraiser has inspired some of the most amazing people to dive in and help. And so you can buy cool caps and T-shirts, and all the profit goes helping our WriterMamas
Check out these great baseball caps, available for a limited time for $30. You can get them in light pink/white, light sky/white, dark red/stone, olive/stone, navy/white, dark gray/stone, black/stone and chocolate/stone.

Or, if you’re not into baseball caps, you can pick up a limited edition Writer Unboxed t-shirt for only $23. They are available in gray or red.



Spread the word
Tell everyone. Share this blog post. Share the individual links. Tweet them, FB them, G+ them, Pinterest them.


If you’re not interested in the merchandise, and you can’t or don’t want to donate, that’s okay. You can still help just by clicking a few buttons to spread the word. The WriterMamas thank you!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Reading Everything

by Susan

It's no secret that I love to read. I've noticed over the past few years that friends and family members often ask me for recommendations so I try to have a rolling list at the ready. I happily give books that I've loved to people without expecting them back. I'll even drop much-loved books in the mail to friends far away, just to insure they have no excuse not to read something fabulous. I go to book signings and hoard my signed copies.

This summer, I returned from my MFA residency with six or eight new books by our visiting writers and faculty. A month later, I went to Sewanee, and came back with at least twenty signed books by people I'm now happy to call friends. In addition, my required reading for my MFA has been an absolute joy, and I'm reading and annotating at least twenty new books per year to complete my degree requirements.

Today, I thought I'd pass on some short story collections, and for my next post I'll share my latest novel finds. Here are the short stories I've been reading, folks. Enjoy!



The Heaven of Animals, by David James Poissant. Each story is gripping. Jamie is not only a great writer, but he's a terrific guy. 

Stories, Volume I, Anton Chekhov. You can't get through life claiming to be a reader without diving in to Chekhov. Start with The Kiss.

The Boy With Fire in his Mouth, by William Kelley Woolfitt. Will is someone to watch. This short story collection won the Epiphany Editions Chapbook Contest and his award-winning poetry collection, Beauty Strip, is forthcoming this year from Texas Review Press.

Tenth Of December, by George Saunders. I can't say it enough: I flipping love George Saunders. This collection won the Folio Prize, and has been called his "Victory Lap." It is a masterpiece of a collection. 

Dear Life, by Alice Munro. What to say about Munro? She's a titan, and just won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013. My favorite in this collection is Corrie.

A Haunted House and Other Short Stories, by Virginia Woolf.  The classic master of the novel also wrote some compelling short stories. This collection was published posthumously-- some completely edited by her and some in a rougher form. Fascinating. 

Reasons to Live, by Amy Hempel. The contemporary master of the short story-- and you can't get through a workshop, conference or MFA program without studying her work. Start with In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried, her first, and perhaps most well-known piece. 

My Escapee, by Corinna Vallianatos. My friend and mentor, and the winner of the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction.

Starting Over, by Elizabeth Spencer. Written and published this year, when she was 92 years old. Read it for that reason, alone.

Going Away Shoes, by Jill McCorkle. Another friend and mentor. I adore this collection, and I adore Jill.

When You Find Us We Will Be Gone, by Christopher Linforth. Christopher and I workshopped together at Sewanee, and he's definitely a rising talent besides being an overall great guy. This collection was just released August 30 (last week!) so pick it up today! 

If you don't want to dive into short story collections or purchase a stack this tall, always know you can find some great short stories online, in literary journals, and in anthologies. And as a tiny shameless plug, you can find one of mine, right here: The Shasta, published in August, 2014, by Drafthorse Literary Journal. Enjoy. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Fruit of Our Labors

The U.S. Congress made Labor Day an official federal holiday in June of 1894. It's meant many things to many people over the years. Over time, it's become less about recognizing the hard work that bolstered our country during the Industrial Revolution when the idea of a day to honor that work began gaining steam, and more about a day of relaxation and a break from the mail. More about putting away the white shoes and pulling out the pencil case and maybe less about parades featuring proud carpenters and plumbers marching through hometowns.

But this Labor Day, take a moment to pause and consider the hard work that still goes into making our country buzz and hum, what gets it dirty and makes it clean again.

For writers, labor rarely means actual sweat (though it certainly involves plenty of tears), but it's good to remember that what we do is indeed work. Work is serious, should be taken seriously, and done well, provides a satisfaction not found elsewhere in life.

This Labor Day, take a moment to pause and consider what it is you do, why you do it, why you continue. Take a moment to consider what others do for you, through sweat and heft both of the body and brain. Take a moment to enjoy the fact that we live in a country that can and should and hopefully does celebrate the hard work of all of its citizens, those who haul the trash and create the roads and feed and clothe and house and entertain us.

This Labor Day, take a moment to rest and enjoy, and take a moment to remember it's our work that propels us on, all of us, that it's our labor that makes us great.
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