Archive for August, 2011

great opportunity: new essay/memoir contest

August 31, 2011

Did last week’s Q&A with memoirist/essayist Melissa Hart inspire you? Then get your best work in shape and submit to The Writer essay & memoir contest, new for 2011! 

The Writer, in collaboration with Gotham Writers’ Workshop, invites writers to enter The Writer 2011 Essay/Memoir Contest with guest judge Lee Gutkind. Only original, unpublished works of 1,000 to 1,200 words will be accepted. Prizes include cash, publication in The Writer, and more! 

Editors at The Writer will read and judge each of the entries and select 20 semifinalists. Lee Gutkind, the finalist judge, will select and rank three winners from among the semifinalists. Lee is founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction and author of more than 20 books, including Almost Human: Making Robots Think, featured on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. His new book, You Can’t Make Stuff Up, the Creative Nonfiction Writer’s Bible, will be published in July 2012 by DeCapo. He is editor of Keep It Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction.  

Entry fees are $10 US and the deadline is 1:59PM (EDT) November 30, 2011. 

Visit this link for more info and to submit your work. Go Wilkies!

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Q&A with author Melissa Hart

August 24, 2011

Have you ever known a multi-tasker? I mean, a real multi-tasker who seems to juggle it all and do so with grace and, yes, success? When it comes to writing, Melissa Hart colors in and outside of the lines in such a well-rounded fashion that’s so inspiring, she has to be one of my favorite interviews of all time. She’s busy, but she’s incredibly endearing as you see… 

Hart is the author of the memoir, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood (Seal, 2009.) She’s a contributing editor at The Writer Magazine, and her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Advocate, Fourth Genre, The Los Angeles Times, Adbusters, High Country News, Orion, Hemispheres, Woman’s Day, and various other publications. She teaches for the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, for U.C. Berkeley’s online extension program, and for Laurel Springs School.  As well, she works as an independent writing coach and editor. Visit her website at www.melissahart.com

Welcome, Melissa, and thanks for joining us. Gringa received –and continues to receive — such positive feedback. What do you plan as a follow-up? Are you working on another memoir? 

This summer, I’m finishing the final draft of a memoir about learning to train permanently-injured owls for educational presentations at a raptor rehabilitation center while navigating the baffling process of adopting a child.  The book focuses on people who dedicate their lives to helping injured and orphaned kids and birds of prey.  It’s taken me three years to write, and I’m really excited about its completion and its possibilities to bring awareness to these two demographics which actually have a lot in common! 

As you work on personal essays, how do you know when you come across something that might be ‘memoir-worthy’? How do you know when something has enough meat to carry a book-length theme or motif? 

With Gringa, I knew I wanted to investigate the under-reported phenomenon of children being separated in the 1960s and 70s from newly-out lesbian mothers.  From my perspective as one of those children, I wanted to explore the effects of homophobia on families.  I also wanted to examine my coming of age in multicultural Los Angeles and what it meant to grow up in such a culturally-rich environment, believing I myself had no discernable culture. 

I’ve written numerous short essays about my experiences with adopting my daughter and with owl-training, but I’m fascinated by how the two paralleled each other over two years, and—as I’d taken extensive notes during our adoption process—I realized I had enough material for a book-length work that expands much of my published material on both subjects. 

I urge participants in my writing workshops to identify a specific era and/or event from their life that has energy and conflict and revelation, and to focus their essay or book-length project on this.  For instance, I’ve got a client right now working on a long essay about going to Japan right out of college to assist his grandfather one summer with some political activism, protesting a proposed naval base.  He’s written about 8,000 words on the subject, but he could easily expand it with flashbacks and history and personal anecdotes to become a book-length memoir. 

How do you balance your time between writing and teaching? Do you ever envy those who have a ‘regular’ schedule? 

I spend about half my time writing, and the other half teaching.  I’m just not one of those writers who can spend all day every day at the computer—I love to interact with emerging writers and talk shop and help them to get their own work published.  I’ve lately started a coaching business for writers, which I adore.  I’ve worked with an etiquette specialist, a woman who did search and rescue with her dog, an 85-year old world traveler, and an Americorp teacher—it’s such a fun, fulfilling job. 

I had a regular schedule as a special education teacher about 13 years ago, and it darn near killed me.  I love the freedom to wake up at six AM and work for an hour before my daughter wakes up, and I don’t mind working like a fiend while she’s at morning preschool because I get to spend time with her in the afternoon. Often, I’ll teach at night and/or meet coaching clients on weekends.  This flexible schedule works better for me than would a 9 to 5 job.  I like every day to be a little different, with time built in to go for a spontaneous hike or write something unplanned, just in case inspiration strikes.  With social commentary, in particular–especially if it’s for newspaper or radio–writers have to jump on a news topic as soon as it hits the wire.  I’m grateful for the time I have to monitor the news with an eye for timely topics that I can then explore in a more immediate way than I approach my books and literary essays. 

What’s your favorite part about being a contributing editor to The Writer

I love my editors.  I’ve been working with them for about 8 years, and they’re such kind, positive people.  They give me wonderful assignments for my “Literary Spotlight” column, introducing me to so many innovative literary journals.  My main editor, Sarah Lange, also knows exactly what types of books I like, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed writing reviews on–for example–Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Notebook and Eric Maisel’s Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions

You have so many diverse publications to your credit. Did you create and follow a plan for the magazines and newspapers you write for or did these publications grow organically as you discovered your areas of interest? 

These publications most definitely grew organically out of whatever interested me at the moment.  Matching my writing to suitable publications requires research into the magazines and newspapers out there, which can be so exciting.  For instance, I hadn’t heard of High Country News (one of my favorite publications) until I wrote “The Owl and I” and began to look for potential markets.  I tell my students to give themselves a couple of hours every now and then to peruse the stacks at the library, and in bookstores, and to research publications online.  Duotrope Digest offers hundreds of titles, of course, and I also like to Google a key word such as “owl” along with the word “magazine” to see what comes up! 

I write on a wide variety of subjects—among them travel, nature, adoption, LGBT issues, and Down syndrome—and I love how there’s a publication out there to fit even the most specific essay and/or article. By the way, I’d like to emphasize for your readers how open the editors of newspaper commentary sections are to topics and writers from all over the country—for instance, as an Oregon writer, I’ve had commentary published in The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Post.  Editors are always looking for fresh perspectives and voices on topics which affect readers in all parts of the country. 

You often find unique ways to bridge similarities between animals–owls, cats, raptors–and humans. Have you always been an animal lover? How has your relationship to animals fed your creativity? 

This is a terrific question, and one I’ve never been asked!  I’ve had cats since I was three years old—the first, a mammoth beast named “Butch” whom I loved almost as much as my little sister.  I’m happiest outside, watching animals in nature, or playing with my cats.  Ten years ago, I sold my first travel article to Cat Fancy, after visiting a feline sanctuary in Rome, and I’ve been writing off and on about cats (and sometimes my two dogs) every since.  It’s interesting to note that my husband and I met at the dog park . . . three years before the romantic comedy Dog Park hit the screen.  

Volunteering at the raptor rehabilitation center inspired numerous essays.  I’d never been around birds of prey, and getting to feed them and care for them–and later, glove train them—was such a privilege, every single day.  I thoroughly enjoy getting to revisit those years in the memoir I’m working on now. 

One of the things I tell workshop students on the first day is “identify your passions.”  Then, you can brainstorm whom you might profile in a magazine related to these passions, and what related essays you might write, and what books you might review.  For instance, I’ve got a student fascinated by VW busses, and he’s written articles, essays, profiles, and blog posts on the subject for a couple of years.  As soon as freelance writers get in touch with what they love, they can take a cross-genre approach which keeps their work exciting and relevant. 

With fall just around the corner, how do plan to take advantage of the remaining weeks of summer? Anything left on your summer reading list you’re excited to share with us? 

Oh, my summer reading list.  Between parenting, working on a book, teaching a community-based class and working with coaching clients, it’s a miracle if I get to open The New Yorker.  But I’m on a huge Mary Karr kick right now, reading her work backwards from Lit to The Liar’s Club.  I just reviewed Sarah Rabkin’s superb book of essays, What I Learned at Bug Camp, for High Country News, and I’m looking forward to reading John Daniel’s newest book.  I’m kind of hoping children’s author Kevin Henkes will come out with a new picture book, too.  I’m in love with his mice. 

Speaking of books, what’s the one book that you turn to repeatedly for an extra boost of writer’s self esteem? What’s the book that kicks you in the pants when you need it most? 

J.D. Salinger’s books—the three that aren’t Catcher in the Rye—ground me and remind me of who I am and what I want to accomplish as a writer.  Aside from his story, “Seymour: An Introduction,” there’s little in them about writing, per se, but they’re informed by marvelous characters, compelling dialogue, subtle plotlines, and a great deal of Eastern philosophy which I try hard to practice in my daily life.  Jack Kornfield and Jon Kabat-Zinn are my contemporary go-to authors, and all I have to do when I’m feeling unbalanced and confused about my work is to read a few pages. 

By the way, Kornfield says in one of his audio lectures, “What is it time to do with that which you have been given?”  I urge freelancers to write this question on a sticky note and attach it to the computer.  As someone who’s mainly self-employed and juggling several jobs in a day, I repeat it to myself almost every morning.  It helps. 

*** 

Visit www.melissahart.com for news and upcoming events.

Q&A with author Loreen Niewenhuis

August 17, 2011

Author Loreen Niewenhuis has had the incredible fortune of seeing two of her books released in 2011, A 1-000 Mile Walk on the Beach and Atlanta. She’s working hard on a new manuscript as well. A Michigan resident, Loreen has found great success in creating an opportunity for herself that blends her genre interests and love of place writing. This interview took place recently and I am pleased to share the highlights today. 

Thanks for joining us, Loreen, and congratulations. With two books released in 2011, you’ve been busy! How do you manage your time?

I’m quite lucky to be able to focus on my writing full-time at this point. Not that I’m making a living at it, but I’ve been a stay-at-home mom for a few years and have been able to devote increasingly more time to my writing as my sons have gotten older.

The first book we’ve seen from you this year is A 1,000-MILE WALK ON THE BEACH, released in March by Crickhollow Books. What is your connection to Lake Michigan and what inspired you to make this figurative and literal journey?

I’ve always been drawn to Lake Michigan. It’s the place I go to center myself. I reached a point in my life where I wanted to take on a big challenge, something that would test me, that I could throw myself into. I decided to take on the lake, to walk all the way around it. In a way, I internalized the lake by completely encircling it.

You’re obviously familiar with the Great Lakes, but I’m sure you learned a great deal about your environment as you made the journey. What surprised you most about Lake Michigan?

Walking the varied geology was a revelation to me. I knew that the Great Lakes were formed by glaciers, but to actually walk the entire shoreline of Lake Michigan gave me a unique perspective. I saw the hand of the glaciers in the perched dunes in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. I recognized the work of wind and waves to loft the massive sand dunes I climbed. Hiking the dense limestone deposits in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the eroding clay cliffs in Wisconsin completed the geological picture of the lake for me.

It was satisfying to connect the lake into a unified view instead of the pinpoint glimpses that I got by visiting the lakeshore at various access points over the years.

How does your writing across genres work in your favor? Or does it? Is it challenging to pen both fiction and nonfiction?

I am, at heart, a fiction writer. It has been a challenge to write nonfiction, especially when it comes to revealing myself on the page. I think that moving between the genres has expanded the way I think about my writing. There is a bigger range of projects I can undertake in the future. The research aspect of A 1,000-MILE WALK ON THE BEACH was fun and I hope to do another project like it in the future.

I understand you’re now working on a new novel, TUMOR BOARD. Can you give us a hint of the premise? 

Since this is the first full-length novel for me, I wanted to create a structure that was transitional between short stories and the novel form. So, the novel has a central spine that is told in present tense. This spine is the Tumor Board meeting that takes place in major hospitals. It is where specialists gather together for one hour each week to discuss difficult cancer cases. In this room there are surgeons, radiologists, nurses, doctors-in-training, researchers, pathologists, etc.

Branching off of this meeting are chapters for each character: one in their past, and one in their future. In the first half of the novel, you get all the glimpses into each of their past, in the second half, into their future. By the end of the novel, the reader will know a significant arc in the life of each character.

It takes place in Detroit in Grace Hospital which used to exist, but was torn down in the ’70s.

Loreen, where can readers learn more about you and your work?

The blog about my walk around Lake Michigan (where I continue to post information about the Great Lakes) is at http://laketrek.blogspot.com/.  My author website is http://lniewenhuis.com/.  I also have a fan page on Facebook where I post updates about readings and signings.

Thanks, Loreen!

Q&A with author Amye Archer

August 10, 2011

You know her. You love her. And she is indeed one of our own. A very recent grad of the Wilkes MFA program, Amye Archer has just launched her chapbook, A Shotgun Life, to rave reviews. Amye took a few minutes from her busy schedule to chat about this well-deserved publication. Without further ado…

Amye, congratulations on the publication of A Shotgun Life. Can you tell us a little about the themes and ‘story’ of this collection? 

This collection deals with my struggle to find my place among the mothers of the world.  As you may have guessed from the title, my pregnancy was a bit of a surprise.  I went from getting divorced and thinking I could not have children, to being the mother of twin girls and having a new husband, all within two years.  In this collection I wanted to capture the difficulties of instant and unexpected motherhood.  Those maternal instincts are not always as automatic as you think.  I once left my kids with the Eater Bunny at the mall.  I forgot I had them.  Thankfully, he was a decent Easter Bunny and he returned them.

What was the journey like for you, to document so many personal experiences and then step back from the personal to put on your objective editor’s hat? Who did you turn to for support in this process?

I have never been shy about splashing myself across the page.  I don’t know if my self-humiliation gene is clicked off, or what happened, but I’m easily able to read self-depricating, or very personal things about my life without flinching.  However, that doesn’t always translate into being a strong writer.  The Wilkes poetry faculty helped me overcome that hurdle.  Christine Gelineau helped me recognize my writing style:  Like a sculptor, I overwrite, and then chip away what is not the poem.

Tell us about working with Big Table Publishing, the publisher of your chapbook. What was the process like, from acquisition to publication?

A few years ago, Robin Stratton, the woman who runs Big Table and Boston Literary Magazine, accepted a few poems from this collection for publication in her magazine.  At that time, I sent her the manuscript.  She liked it, but felt it lacked a narrative arc.  And THAT… is where Tony Morris comes in.   Tony, a poet in the Wilkes University Creative Writing Program, gave me great advice as to finding that arc.  He told me to print all the poems out, and scatter them around my living room floor.  Something will emerge, he assured me.  (ala A Beautiful Mind style…)  Once I found that arc, I revised, and resent to Robin.  This time she loved the manuscript.

Now that you’ve finished up your MFA with Wilkes, what is your writing life like? What fills your day and what do you find most challenging without the ever-present community surrounding you? Or, is it like you’ve never left?  

I graduated?  Oh crap.  Well, it will take more than a degree to get rid of me.  (a restraining order maybe?)  I still hang around the office trying to absorb the energy of the new students coming into the program.  I’m very lucky because I live close enough to do that.  I think the Wilkes community is what you make of it.  Either you take it with you or you don’t.  I’ve taken it with me.  My cohort and I are tight, and I have made lifelong friends.  I also started a reading series, Prose in Pubs, which ensures I will forever be surrounded by enormous talent, at least every other month on a Sunday night.

How did the Wilkes program help you become the writer you are today? What do you think was most influential in your development as a writer?

I aways say, if you learn nothing else in this program, you learn how to live like a writer.  I was always a writer, but fancied my talents as just a hobby, something I did for fun.  Wilkes connects you with like-minded individuals who transform your writing from pastime to passion.

What are your plans now? Is there a memoir to keep our eyes out for?

Well, I’m working with an agent on revising my memoir.  One of two things is going to happen with my memoir:  You are either going to see it for sale someday, or it will perish in a fiery blaze in my fire pit.  It can go either way right now.

Finally, where can readers find you online and in person?

I have created a blog where anyone, stalkers included, can find out anything they need to know about me:  www.amyearcher.com.  You can find Prose in Pubs on Facebook.  In the upcoming weeks we have some big names reading for us starting with Jason Carney, a national performance poet, and fellow student in the Wilkes Program.

***

Be sure to visit Amye’s page dedicated to A Shotgun Life here.

guest blogger: graduate Patricia Florio

August 3, 2011

Patricia Florio is a recent grad of the Wilkes MA and MFA creative nonfiction writing programs. She lives in Ocean Grove NJ and is a travel writer for StripedPot.com. For her nonfiction thesis, Patricia worked with drafting mentor Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr and revision mentor Phil Brady. She has provided this guest post today to talk about her experience with the Wilkes program and share her path to publication! Patricia has seen two of her short stories, “All in the Game” and “In The Secret Service,” accepted for anthology publication and very soon her thesis memoir, My Two Mothers, will be released with Phyllis Scott Publishing.

Without further ado, welcome Patricia Florio…

***

My time at Wilkes seems forever ago and sometimes it seems like I’m still there in the thick of writing, observing, listening and being a part of the moment-by-moment creativity that only a program like the Wilkes low-residency MA/MFA can offer.

I had never gone away to college. Actually, I had never gone anywhere without my husband and four children, since it seems like I was a child when I had my first, a set of twin boys, and then two more children over the years. Wilkes’ program offered me that part of life that I felt I missed out on in my college education. I had gone to school, it seems, most of my life: first, conquering the skill of becoming a court reporter in a crash-course program at the College of Staten Island in 1983 through 1985.  

While working in the federal court in Brooklyn, my desire heightened to push further from an associate’s degree at Brookdale Community College to a bachelor’s of arts program. It took seven years to complete that program at Rutgers University on a part-time basis. When I found out about the Wilkes programs, it was a no-brainer. I was already in for a pound of education. Why not go the whole nine yards?

That first Friday night at Wilkes, I knew I had come to the right place. There were other scared people like myself scurrying around the hallways. There were others who were betting their talent cut it far away in this university in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. I knew that night I could stop saying, “I’m a court reporter” and finally say I’m a writer.

J Michael Lennon and Nancy McKinley are so perfect for the 501 cohorts: the gentle lead. They are so perfect in their element of the new and brave writers who first walk in the door. I could have shared anything with them like going into a confessional. I was able to write my most inner-kept secrets, my passion for writing, all of the thoughts that I have had circling around in my head for years and years, dying to come out and to have its own voice.  

This Wilkes program is a special program. Those of us participating in the programs at Wilkes know it, even though sometimes it can’t be defined as to what it is that has captivated us. Experiential things are hard to put a title on, or words to, almost like a religious retreat. It’s what’s going on inside a person that makes them push harder during the twelve hour days of the first cohort, taking every moment into your pores, absorbing it all, going back to the hotel exhausted and coming back for more the next day.

I’ve been lucky, although I just don’t want to put it on luck: being at the right place at the right time, having a good story to tell, being able to tell that story with the uniqueness of my words and with the passion of coming from a Sicilian family, whom I wanted to share with the world, a publisher asked to publish my memoir/thesis.  Signing a contract and understanding what I’m entitled to by selling my story, all of that came from the classes at Wilkes.

My outside reader, Lucy Carson, played a very special role. She said, “This is not for a New York market.” So I took my story to California. It seems silly because my story is about growing up in Brooklyn, New York.  But I listened to the words of her advice. So sometime this year My Two Mothers, my thesis/memoir, now broken down into a collection of short stories will be available from Phyllis Scott Publishing (San Diego CA).

There’s always work that’s going to have to be done when you’re a writer. I will have to market my book, have book parties, set up readings and book signings, make myself known to the public and the most important thing for me is to keep writing.  I’m in the midst of writing my first novel, called Hats off to Larry.  It’s a fun story and intriguing at the same time. It’s interesting what your creative mind can come up with. All I can say is that I am the beneficiary of the Wilkes University Creative Writing Program. And that’s really something!