What Keeps Me Writing

By Midge Raymond,

I’m happy to be taking part in Get Lit!’s Cyber Author Panel on “What Keeps Me Writing” — and the topic reminded me of an essay I came across recently: Geoff Nicholson’s New York Times essay, titled “Can’t. Stop. Writing.” Addressing the same topic, the essay first focuses on the prolificacy of authors (Nicholson’s own 20 books in 22 years; Joyce Carol Oates’ more than 100 books in 45 years; the late John Updike’s 50 in 60).

It focuses less on prolific unpublished authors (though the essay does mention the romance novelist Barbara Cortland’s unpublished 160 novels, of 700 books total). I myself am somewhere in between, with some two dozen published stories, a just-published collection, and a (yet) unpublished novel. And, as a writer who is still “emerging” after a decade of slowly but surely getting published stories into the world amid my various day jobs, this makes the question of what keeps me writing very relevant, as in “Why do I keep writing fiction when I could pursue a more sustainable, lucrative career path?”

For one, when I was young, I never imagined doing anything else. When I grew up and realized that no one was going to pay me to sit around and write, I did the next best things: I taught English. I went to graduate school. I moved to New York and worked in publishing. I wrote for magazines and newspapers and newsletters. I wrote fiction on the side and eventually carved out more and more time for it in what increasingly became a patchwork life of teaching and freelancing and writing, writing, writing. And this alone keeps me writing – my knowledge that the ability to live this way is a gift too valuable to be wasted.

What also keeps me writing is, most often, the little things. When I see or hear something interesting, it becomes the kernel of a new story. Every moment, to me, is a story waiting to be born; I’m not sure I’m capable of looking at the world in any other way. And these little things eventually lead to the bigger things: the chance to step outside my world and delve into another, to take a part of my own world and transform it into something that is broader than my own experience — and I hope, the ability to do the same for readers.

Eventually, these little and big things multiply and become another source of inspiration to keep writing: publishing a new story in a literary magazine helps me recognize how much I’m still growing as a writer; teaching at a conference makes me realize how much I’ve learned along the way; getting feedback from readers tells me I’m making a connection somewhere out there.

For me, Nicholson sums it up perfectly: “…perhaps the real reason we keep writing is the hope, naïve perhaps, that we’ll make a better job of it next time. Unless you’re a genius or a fool, you realize that everything you write, however ‘successful,’ is always a sort of failure. And so you try again.”



Publishing – and unpublishing – online

By Midge Raymond,

Jessica Powers has an interesting article on New Pages, which begins by telling the story of a ridiculous argument between two online editors and then moves on to discuss the pros and perils of publishing work in online magazines.

The argument she refers to ended in the “unpublishing” of one editor’s stories — an interesting and uniquely online concept (once you publish a piece in print, of course, there’s no taking it back). But while most online editors do not remove content out of spite, they are sometimes approached by authors wanting their work taken offline because they feel it hasn’t aged well. Justin Taylor, editor of The Apocalypse Reader and a regular contributor to HTML Giant, makes a great point about the problem with this option: “I was who I was, I wrote what I wrote, and those people were interested in what I showed them at the time. The fact that I’ve moved on doesn’t change the fundamental kindness or integrity of what they did for me. That’s the whole point of art: you make it, and then it exists.”

The good news in this article is that, according to AGNI editor William Pierce (whose magazine publishes both print and online content) believes that online magazines, often taken less seriously than print publications, are becoming more and more respectable: “More and more, work published online is eligible for the prize anthologies and is winning recognition that used to be reserved for print publication.”

It’s a great article for any writer looking to publish online — and among its important points are cautions that apply to submitting to both print and online pubs: Be happy with your work before sending it anywhere, and be sure it’s a magazine you respect and would be proud to see your work published.



Midge’s Alter Ego(s)

By Midge Raymond,

Now that Forgetting English has been out for a few weeks, I’m getting wonderful responses from readers (thank you!), many of whom are friends, students, or otherwise know me on some level.  And this is when they usually ask, with some degree of concern, “To what extent are these stories autobiographical?”

I love this question. The stories in Forgetting English are, generally, about characters who are lost, lonely, on the edge. There is betrayal, adultery, suicide, and, as one reader puts it, “so much sex in this book.” I’ve captured these characters at the very last outposts of the world (literally) and of their own lives (metaphorically).

For those concerned, however, about my marriage and/or my mental state: Rest assured my own life is not nearly as interesting as those of these characters. When I think about the origins of these stories, as I have a lot lately in response to questions, I’ve enjoyed remembering the moments in which the stories began to take shape. The day a ring arrived in the alumni office where I worked (“The Road to Hana”); the moment I saw a Japanese couple clap their hands at the Zozo-ji temple in Tokyo (“Translation Memory”); the time I picked up a hotel room phone to discover someone else’s message (“Rest of World”).

For me, it’s the little moments that inspire a story — something that piques my curiosity about a life beyond what I’m witnessing. It’s why I write fiction … to explore what’s beyond my own experience, and perhaps to find a common truth in what I discover. For me, that’s about as close to memoir as it gets.

Divorce attorneys, keep your business cards. Pyschiatrists, keep your straightjackets (though you can keep your prescription pads out). All is well — except maybe in my (perhaps overactive) imagination.



Obama, It’s “Me”

By Midge Raymond,

I loved this op-ed in today’s New York Times, in part because I love to see good grammar appreciated. It also says a lot about the change in administration: The authors are being extremely nitpicky about Barack Obama’s near-perfect grammar, whereas only a year ago they’d probably have been happy just to hear a complete sentence from the commander in chief, or words that actually appear in the dictionary.

The article is about the improper use of “I” as an object in such phrases: “a very personal decision for Michelle and I” or “graciously invited Michelle and I.” It should, of course, be “me.” (As in, “between you and me, I’ve been so interested in what Obama says that I’ve never noticed his pronoun issues.”) The authors, Patricia T. O’Conner (of the wonderful grammar book Woe Is I) and Stewart Kellerman, go on to justify its usage due to linguistic precedent — but in the end, I was happy to see, they conclude that “an educated speaker is expected to keep his pronouns in line.” And they end with the little trick that, once applied, will forever teach you to say it right.



Publishers on the Recession

By Midge Raymond,

I just came across this series of interviews with independent publishers on how the recession is affecting their business. It’s interesting to see that, in general, the small, independent presses have tended to fare far better during the recession than the larger publishing conglomerates, due to, among other things, a smaller lists of quality books, low overhead, and loyal readers. And, the independents are keeping a close eye on digital technologies and new options for approaching and serving readers online.

David R. Godine, the publisher at Godine, points out a few major differences between the small presses and the large New York Houses: “First, we are privately held and cash flow is far more important than profitability. We are not answerable to stock holders for ever improving scores on the bottom line or the balance sheet. We own our own warehouse and ship our own books, so we can print for three or four years, and not just for a season. We are not expected to offer huge advances or munificent royalties, so people aren’t disappointed when we live up to our, or their, expectations. Finally, we provide a fairly identifiable “quality” product and we have a fairly loyal and predictable customer base — both consumers and bookstores. When times are tough, people inevitably move to quality. They may buy less, but they buy better.”

Allan Kornblum, the publisher at Coffee House Press, echoes this in response to a question about Houghton Mifflin’s troubles: “Houghton Mifflin’s mission is to make money for shareholders first, and to serve literature second. As a nonprofit, our mission is to serve the public good.” He also adds that authors have more realistic expectations from a smaller house: “Our authors don’t expect to be picked up at the airport in a limo when they tour. They sleep on couches in the homes of friends, not at the Hilton, when they give readings.”

In the interview with Margo Baldwin, president and publisher of Chelsea Green Publishing, Baldwin had very interesting things to say about the future of publishing. And, because this company focuses on sustainable living issues, Baldwin adds that it has done quite during the recession. “If you want to eat, you learn how to grow your own food. If you want a house, you can learn how to build it yourself. If you want to reduce your energy use, you can figure out how to harvest your own power. Survival is a wake up call, and we have the books to educate people on that front.”

Richard Nash, editorial director of Soft Skull Press and executive editor of Counterpoint, talks about how it’s getting more difficult to get books into bookstores — but again, it’s one of the many challenges small publishers are used to. “More and more you have to prove to the retailer your book will sell. But frankly, Soft Skull has almost ALWAYS had to do that. Our books, either because they seem to be very nichy, or very literary, or very alternative, or very hybrid, have always faced significant challenges when sales reps present them to bookstores. So in a sense these challenges that we’ve faced for our entire existence likely have us better prepared for the current challenges.”

Fred Ramey, co-publisher (with Greg Michalson) at Unbridled Books, mentions changes he’s noticing in book-buying behavior, which would affect bigger publishers more than independent ones. “If instead of buying the book they’re told to buy, readers are heading toward books that are hand-sold to them or that their online friends recommend, toward books they find links to on Amazon/Powell’s/etc., then what has previously appeared to conglomerated publishers as the surest thing will become much less so.”

Declan Spring, senior editor at New Directions, acknowledges, “None of us got raises this year. We’re trying to cut costs, and interestingly, we’re finding that the printers are more eager for business. We find we can bunch up more titles and bring down the printing and binding costs this way for titles that sell more steadily. We’ve always run sort of on a shoe-string, so while we’re certainly being careful about keeping expenses down, this is something we’ve always done anyway.”



SCWC; Day Two

By Midge Raymond,

Yesterday was a beautiful, sunny day, most of which I spent inside at the Southern California Writers’ Conference — and it was well worth it.

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Actually, I spent more of my day teaching sessions than attending sessions — but it was great to see the energy of all the writers, to hear all their thoughtful questions, and to read a few samples of their work. I was particularly happy to see such a nice crowd at my afternoon revision session — revision being such a necessary part of the writing process, yet often one of the least fun for many writers.

And later, in their afternoon panel, several agents and editors confirmed the importance of having polished work. The panel featured agent (and former editor) Claire Gerus; agent Natanya Wheeler of Lowenstein-Yost; Jeff Moores of Dunow, Carlson & Lerner; and editor Lynn Price of Behler Publications.

When asked about the biggest mistakes writers make when submitting to an agent or a small press, the answers were issues that can all be resolved with careful revision: grammatical errors, point-of-view switches, having too much backstory too early on (a structural issue), as well as an overall “lack of preparedness” on the part of the writer.

The panel also talked about the difficulties for writers in the current economy (writers can expect lower advances); the fact that writers need to be their own publicists, or hire one; and the advantages of using Internet to promote one’s book. It was nice to hear them emphasize that it’s the quality of writing that gets their attention, not a trendy topic; they’re looking for timeless books rather than a hot topic.

I also spoke to a couple people who did the Rogue Workshops (these are the ones that begin at 9 p.m. and last indefinitely), some of which finished shortly after midnight and others that lasted past 3 a.m. They sounded like so much fun that I’m (almost ) sorry to have been sleeping through them.



Notes from SC Writers’ Conference; Day One

By Midge Raymond,

It’s nice to be in San Diego, even if the temperatures are in the 50s (it’s still 20 degrees warmer than where I’m coming from) — and the much-needed rain is always worth celebrating, especially when it alternates with sunny blue skies (and gorgeous sunsets).

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The Southern California Writers’ Conference started yesterday, and I sat in on a couple sessions before taking off to prepare for my own this morning and this afternoon. I really enjoyed Julie Ann Shapiro‘s session on flash fiction; as a writer of short fiction myself, I nevertheless tend to write longish short fiction rather than the 500-750 word “flashes” that give this sub-genre its name. But Shapiro gave us an excellent introduction to the form, read us a few flash examples, and then put us to work. She has a lovely, encouraging style that encouraged us all to give it a try and, most of all, to have fun with it.

I also attended Michael Thompkins‘ session on character, which offered a great way to approach characters — one that we all might do subconsciously but would be better off doing consciously. A psychologist, Thompkins brought us into the physical aspects of character and offered four different personality types, encouraging us to pay close attention to somatic psychology and emotional anatomy as we define and portray our characters on the page. (Too many details to go into here, but he is also doing a follow-up session this morning, and more info is available on his own web site.)

More tomorrow…



Grammar Goods

By Midge Raymond,

I just discovered the coolest web site (well, “cool” may be relative in my case). But writers and grammar geeks everywhere will enjoy Grammar Rules, which offers products for the “grammatically aware lifestyle.” It may sound a little odd (except to people like me, perhaps) but the products are so well done — a combination of coffee-shop simplicity and typewriter artsy — that they’re rather irresistible, even if you already know your linking verbs from your gerunds.

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In addition to the plates and mugs, you can buy greeting cards that cover everything from verb tense (“Today we do it. Friday we did it. We have done it often.”) to direct objects to contractions.

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Now, I shop. Tomorrow, I will be poorer.



On Writing Buddies

By Midge Raymond,

Remember when we were small and we weren’t allowed to cross the street without a buddy? Well, in many ways writing can be just as daunting, which is why having a writing buddy is such a good idea.

I often turn to my friend Stacey — an excellent certified coach — to crack the whip when I get stuck, or when I let the rest of life pile up in front of the writing (even when writing is always what I’d rather be doing). And just today I had a terrific meeting with my new writing buddy Clare — we sat in a Belltown cafe and outlined our goals, set our deadlines, and then went our separate ways to get writing.

I love this arrangement. (And it’s not just because Clare makes the best chocolate chip scones I’ve ever had.) For one, I’m going to be away next week, a week during which I normally wouldn’t get any writing done. But Clare and I have set deadlines, so I must meet them. I’m accountable. And for a writer, this is often half the battle.

The nice thing about being coached along by a fellow writer is the sharing of ideas, the inspiration and wisdom you can bring to each other’s work. This afternoon, as we talked about outlines, Clare compared the end of a chapter to a long exhale — a beautiful metaphor for the way the end of a chapter must conclude, yet also be ready to begin again, to take the next breath.

Between the writing wisdom and the chocolate chip scones, I am truly inspired. And now — off to write. I have a deadline looming.



Thrilling Tales in Seattle

By Midge Raymond,

I’m getting a little addicted to the Seattle Public Library. At first, it was the cool building, designed by Rem Koolhaas, the funky Dutch architect. It’s a gorgeous modern structure with neon escalators and this amazing hall that is painted completely red (somehow it always reminds me of The Shining).


Then I discovered the cool little gift shop (having a sale now) and the Chocolati Cafe (need I say more about that?) And the top floor’s gigantic, sun-filled reading room (well, in Seattle that’s a stretch — let’s say “light-filled”; on a cloudy day it’s still very bright in there) is perfect for reading and even better for writing.

And today I went to another lunchtime session of Thrilling Tales, during which the fiction librarian, David Wright, read T. C. Boyle’s story “The Lie.” (In case you missed it in the New Yorker, read it now. Better yet, have someone read it to you). We also heard a short piece by Etgar Keret called “A Souvenir from Hell,” which was great. I love being in a place where stories are celebrated.

Last but not least, the Book Return is this space-age auto thingy that sucks your book up into some machine. The whole place is like a Disneyland for writer geeks like me.

 



Forgetting English…but remembering the penguins

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s good news is that I have copies of Forgetting English in my hands at last. This is cool.

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One of the stories, “The Ecstatic Cry,” originally published in Ontario Review, is about a penguin researcher in Antarctica — which brings me to the bad news, this story in the Boston Globe’s Green Blog about the fate of the emperor penguins.

New research from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution indicates that the emperors face serious population declines due to climate change. According to this research, if climate change continues to melt sea ice at the rates reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the larger emperor colonies will shrink from 3,000 to only 400 breeding pairs by the end of this century — and there are only about 40 emperor colonies in the world to begin with.

And Al Gore’s update to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday is nothing short of terrifying. I realize I’m a little off-topic here, but a world without penguins (or polar bears, or sea ice) isn’t a world I’d want to live in. But of course, it’s not just the animals I worry about … as Gore reports, for each 1 meter of sea level rise, there will be roughly 100 million climate refugees. And Antarctica is melting fast.



This is a new one…

By Midge Raymond,

As readers of this blog know, I get a little cranky when I hear about memoirs that turn out to have been made up. Today’s NY Times has an interesting story about the Chilean writer Roberto Bolano, whose two recent novels (2666 and The Savage Detectives) are not in question but whose biography is.

Apparently Bolano, who died in 2003, was not into heroin, nor was he in Chile during the military coup that brought Pinochet to power, as he has claimed. And American critics and publishers are being taken to task for “deliberately distorting the writer’s past to fit him into the familiar mold of the tortured artist.”

It’s no secret that writers and publishers need to think about sales — and aside from the writing, it helps to have youth, beauty, or some other angle or platform that helps sell books. But when writers have to start re-creating their own personas to sell books, we might be taking things a little too far.



All publishing, all the time

By Midge Raymond,

Lately it seems that the publishing industry is making headlines in a bigger way than usual, with the layoff of Publishers Weekly’s editor-in-chief Sara Nelson yesterday and the former publisher of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt joining Riverhead, not to mention the many other layoffs and reorganizations in the industry over the past few months.

In addition, I’ve noticed several articles on “the new publishing,” which in many cases refers to self-publishing, on which the NY Times has a cover story today. It begins, “The point may soon come when there are more people who want to write books than there are people who want to read them” — though I have long wondered whether we’re there already.

The article outlines the pros and cons of self-publishing, of which most writers are aware, and mentions one surprising fact: this month, Author Solutions (which operates iUniverse, AuthorHouse, and other vanity presses) bought Xlibris — and combined, the company represented 19,000 titles in 2008: almost six times more than Random House, the world’s largest traditional publishing house. (And keep in mind that these books did not have editors.) It’s a strange statistic.

But those in the self-publishing business know that it’s not about books but about money. Lulu’s CEO, Robert Young, admits that most of its titles are published for few other than the authors and their families. “We have easily published the largest collection of bad poetry in the history of mankind,” he told the Times.

And yet for all those niche books that will sell only a few copies, there are authors out there who know there is a larger audience for their work — and it is for these writers that I’m glad self-publishing is now easy and cheap. Today’s success story is Lisa Genova, whose first novel, “Still Alice,” was turned down or ignored by 100 literary agents. She self-published the novel for $450 and, though perseverance and fantastic luck, eventually sold it to Pocket Books for a mid-six-figure advance. It debuted on the New York Times trade paperback fiction bestseller list at number five this Sunday.



The Story Behind the Story

By Midge Raymond,

I’ve recently received my fall issue of American Literary Review, in which I’m thrilled to have a story of my own included. Even after having written and rewritten a piece, then editing the proofs, I still get a kick out of seeing a story in print (especially in the pages of a magazine I’ve read and admired for years). Somehow, a published, polished piece feels a little different, in a good way, and the effect this had on me today was to remind me of the origins of this one.

Years ago, when I was working in the alumni office of a large university, we received a letter that contained a ring — a lovely, expensive-looking ring — along with a note asking that it be returned to its rightful owner. The sender wrote that she had stolen it from her roommate years earlier and wanted to make things right again. (This is the kind of thing that a writer can’t get out of her mind.)

And I never did get that letter (or the letter writer) out of my mind. Much later, while in Hawaii for a friend’s wedding, I found myself noticing the couples next to me at the bar, or in a cafe — a lot of young honeymooners and a lot of older couples as well. I thought again of the ring, of relationships and regrets, and, to make a long story short, these ideas collided in my mind (as Grace Paley once said, “I don’t have a story until I have two stories”), and “Twin Falls” was born.

To see how the story evolves and how it ends, turn to page 39 of this issue of ALR. 🙂

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Ah, finally.

By Midge Raymond,

This is the novel that came from the screenplay that came from the memoir that came from the story that came from the house that Herman Rosenblat built.

It’s a little convoluted, but here it is: Today’s NY Times reports that Herman Rosenblat’s false memoir will actually be published as a novel (as it should have been all along, since it was fictional). Apparently, the film rights for the memoir had already been sold, and a screenplay had been written, and now a publisher in White Plains will publish a novel based on the screenplay.

All’s well that ends well. But would it have been so hard to write a novel to begin with?