Dispatches from Get Lit!

By Midge Raymond,

My plan was to write about Get Lit!, from Get Lit!, on a daily basis — but I soon realized that I wasn’t going to have that kind of time (they kept us busy, in a GREAT way). So here are some highlights and insights, all wrapped up into one nice tidy little post.

Arrived in Spokane on Thursday afternoon, with the sun shining and the temperature at something-warm-enough-so-I-didn’t-need-a-jacket-for-the-first-time-in-six-months. John and I had some time to explore so we walked around the falls a bit …

spokane

… before heading to the authors’ reception at the Spokane Club, where we met other festival authors. John and Jane Smiley talked about where they went to high school (it’s a St. Louis thing), and I was happy to meet (in person at last) the wonderful people at EWU Press who brought Forgetting English into the world.

Afterward we went to the Bing Crosby Theater for a hilarious reading by Laurie Notaro, followed by Jane’s reading from Ten Days in the Hills and a Q&A afterward. Among the things she discussed were the pros of living in a small town (Ames, Iowa, in her case), where distractions are few, day care is good, and everything is close enough so that the time you might spend driving around a bigger city can be spent writing … how, after writing 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, she no longer compares books to one another but takes each on its own merits, appreciating them for their individual idiosyncrasies … how she tackles research differently for each book … and how she no longer reads reviews, knowing that not everyone is going to like everything she writes and not minding it at all.

The conversation continued in the morning at our panel, A Female Perspective on Writing — where Laurie, Jane, Kate Trueblood and I talked about our writing processes; inspirations; and thoughts on topics from humor, style, and writing from a female point of view.

panel

That evening, Charles Baxter read a piece he’d never read in public before: “Conversation Piece,” a lovely, poetic work that he’d written to accompany a dance performance. He then read from his novel The Soul Thief, which was inspired by a friend of his who had, inexplicably, started impersonating him, going around Southern California telling everyone he was Charles Baxter and even doing readings). The friend eventually called and confessed, asking afterward, “Do you think I should go into therapy?” (I don’t think a writer’s material gets much better than that.)

Baxter spoke afterward about, among other things, his process (to write, he needs a room with a window, but no phone or Internet connection) and about why so few stories are happy ones (“stories begin when things start to go wrong”).

On Saturday I did a reading with Brenda Miller, who read from her beautiful new book, Blessing of the Animals, and then co-taught a workshop on revision. That evening, we went to a fantastic reading and talk by scientist-environmentalist-author David Suzuki, which was a call to action to save the planet that was somehow not depressing but amazingly inspiring and uplifting. Visit his web site for info on anything from global warming to human health to sustainability — it’s worth it.

Sunday: left Spokane in the morning, stopped at a winery along the way (used the “it’s five o’clock somewhere” rule to justify tasting eight different wines), and got home to find that spring has arrived in Seattle at last.



Writerly events this week

By Midge Raymond,

I’m heading to Spokane for Get Lit! tomorrow, which is very exciting — but also wanted to mention what’s going on in Seattle, particularly tonight’s Letters from Temuko: A Bilingual Evening of Poetry, Story and Song at Richard Hugo House. Seattle poets Eugenia Toledo and Carolyne Wright will present a literary travelogue of their recent cultural exchange to Chile and read from a bilingual chapbook of work by Chilean poets as well as their own poetry and reflections.

I’m looking forward to Get Lit! this weekend — especially to An Evening with Jane Smiley tomorrow night, In Conversation with Charles Baxter on Friday night — and all the other readings and workshops taking place all weekend.

There are author panels galore all day Friday and Saturday, and I’m looking forward to participating in A Female Perspective on Writing with Jane Smiley, Kathryn Trueblood, and Laurie Notaro.

On Saturday, I’ll be doing a reading with Brenda Miller, as well as an afternoon workshop with Pamela Holway, Ken Letko, Glenda Burgess, and Kathy Fagan.

And, as if there weren’t enough to look forward to, I’m packing for sunshine and temperatures in the sixties.



Celebrating the story

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s New York Times has a great article in praise of the short story — though it begins with all those negative things we hear about short stories and their writers: “To call an American writer a master of the short story can be taken at best as faint praise, or at worst as an insult” … “A young writer who turns up at the office of an editor or literary agent with a volume of stories is all but guaranteed a chilly, pitying welcome” …

…but the article quickly points out that the great American novelists that appeared on your English class syllabus were terrific story writers (among them Melville, Hawthorne, James, and Poe). The article also highlights three recently published biographies — of Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, and Donald Barthelme — and celebrates the amazing work of these authors. But, in the end, it’s a celebration of the short story itself — with a call to action for readers.

The article questions whether the Kindle might be like the iPod in bringing short stories to a bigger audience, one by one, and poses a challenge: “If you can buy a single song for a dollar, why wouldn’t you spend that much on a handy, compact package of character, incident and linguistic invention? Why wouldn’t you collect dozens, or hundreds, into a personal anthology, a playlist of humor, pathos, mystery and surprise?”

This is, of course, a wonderful idea — one that’s already being done in print (for example, the literary magazine One Story) — and my husband, John Yunker, is one of probably many entrepreneurial writers who has a story on Amazon for Kindle download, his prize-winning story “The Tourist Trail.” (At $1.59, it’s a great deal, and I’m not just saying that because he’s my husband.)

The article concludes with what those of us who love short stories already know: “…the great American short story is still being written, and awaits its readers.”



For your summer reading list

By Midge Raymond,

Read this New York Times story for news about the  partnership of the O. Henry Prize stories with PEN American Center. Starting with the 2009 collection, which will be published by Random House in early May, the annual anthology will be called the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories.

Included in this year’s edition are stories by this year’s Spokane Prize winner, Caitlin Horrocks, and this month’s Andrew’s Book Club Indie Pick, Paul Yoon.

My summer beach reading stack is now taller than I am.



A different breed of penguin

By Midge Raymond,

I was so glad to see this great interview with Dr. Dee Boersma of the University of Washington in today’s New York Times, about her penguin research in Argentina. The interview is terrific in highlighting Dee’s work with the Magellanic penguins over the years (25+), and important in pointing out the serious threats penguins face today due to climate change and overfishing.

pentuins

As readers of Forgetting English know, the story “The Ecstatic Cry” is about a different breed of penguin … but my husband and I were fortunate to have been able to help Dee with her census at Punta Tombo a couple of years ago (John’s award-winning short story, “The Tourist Trail,” was inspired by the trip). It’s an amazing part of the world — and while much of it still feels pristine and unspoiled, the sad fact is that, as Dee mentions in the article, the colony at Punta Tombo has declined 22 percent since 1987: “That’s a lot. This type of penguin is considered near-threatened. Of the 17 different penguin species, 12 are suffering rapid decreases in numbers.”

mpenguin

In the photo above, though it looks as if I’m stabbing this poor bird, I’m in fact lifting it just slightly so that I can count the eggs it’s incubating. That was one of our tasks as volunteers: to count individual penguins, breeding pairs, and eggs. The penguins suffered no harm — in fact, having to lift the birds, let alone hold them to weigh and measure them, was probably more stressful for John and me — but it’s because of this meticulous research over nearly thirty years that Dee is able to tell us about climate change, feeding and breeding patterns, and how we can help the penguins of the future. As she told the Times, “If we’re going have penguins, I think we are going to have to do ocean zoning and try to manage people.”

Click here to learn more about Dee and The Penguin Project at UW.

pa080587



Cool stuff for writers (and readers)

By Midge Raymond,

I just wanted to mention a few great resources for writers (and readers) …

For all of you writers who need a little discipline, check out 100 Words, where you pledge to write 100 words a day (exactly) of whatever you want. If you complete your 100 words a day for a month, you’ll be a featured member, and you can then post what you’ve written. It’s fun to see what other members are writing as well.

And my friend Jennifer Simpson has started a cool new venture, Writers Out Loud, and is now taking audio submissions of writers reading from their work. Visit her submissions guidelines, grab a mic, and start reading. Even if you’re not a writer, visit the site to hear an excerpt from Jennifer’s lovely memoir, and check back later for more.

And for all writers and readers in the Pacific Northwest, check out the offerings at the Get Lit! Festival, starting next month. Even if you’re not from the area, it’ll be well worth a visit (have I mentioned it’s in wine country?). I’m excited to be a part of it, of course, but am even more eager to enjoy all the other events — far too many to mention here. Visit the web site to see a complete listing of authors, readings, panels, workshops, and more.

getlitposter



Recycle Your Rejection Letters

By Midge Raymond,

Finally, something to do with all those rejection slips! The literary magazine Marginalia is offering a “Sad Bastard” discount on a copy of the magazine: simply mail in ten rejections and a dollar for your free issue. What a great deal.

And, in case you find that digging out those ten rejection slips is a little depressing, just know you’re not alone. Here are a few ways to commiserate with fellow rejected writers:

Read: Jon Friedman’s book Rejected: Tales of the Failed, Dumped, and Canceled is a compilation of essays, jokes, sketches, cartoons, and articles rejected by venues from Saturday Night Live to Reader’s Digest, and was hailed by Publishers Weekly as “uplifting” and “fine, funny collaboration.”

Listen: Check out this NPR segment on famous rejected writers, from Jack Kerouac to George Orwell to Sylvia Plath (all turned down by Knopf). This will make any rejected writer feel a little better.

Visit: Rejection Collection posts rejection letters of all types, including those from literary agents, publishers, magazines, and art galleries — and invites you to submit. (NOTE: Be warned that the site doesn’t publish all submissions, so there exists the possibility that you could be rejected by a rejection letter web site, which might take you back to This Is Depressing).



Literature in the Recession

By Midge Raymond,

Hirsh Sawhney has a nice post in today’s Guardian Books Blog on independent publishing, noting that while many of the bigger publishers are scrambling to cut expenses, the smaller, independent presses, which have always operated on lean budgets, are doing quite well.

Sawhney admits to being a bit biased (his book, Delhi Noir, is forthcoming in August by the independent publisher Akashic) — and I’m a little biased myself, Forgetting English having been published by a university press. But I think a lot of us who love good writing will appreciate his point of view: “[What] will save literature from economic disaster? Simple: independent publishing. Yes, independents -– the ones who struggle to sell enough books to make payroll -– will ensure that engaging, challenging books continue to be produced and consumed. It’s they who’ll safeguard literature through the dark economic days ahead.”

It’s not just small-press pride that inspires Sawhney’s claim (nor is that why I’m repeating it here); it’s a fact that the smaller publishers simply do business differently, which in this economic climate has served them well. Small presses don’t generally pay gigantic advances, then suffer huge losses when books don’t earn them out. They’re accustomed to shoestring budgets (which most likely does not include martini lunches). And, as Sawhney points out, “when you’re independently owned, you’re somewhat insulated from the machinations of the market.”

Sawhney says he’s “hearing rumblings from friends and colleagues who work with bigger houses,” and while he’s not specific about what these rumblings are, exactly, the point he’s making is that he’s very happy with his own publisher — like me, he gets nearly instant replies to his emails and the careful, personal attention to his work that, these days, perhaps only an independent press can offer to each and every one of its writers.

Whether independents will “save literature from the recession,” I’m not sure…I do believe books will survive no matter what (even if we have to read them on our Kindles or laptops). But I too see the independents, and their authors, weathering this recession quite well. I’ve been grateful, many times over, that my book was published as a trade paperback (who can afford hardcovers these days?) and that every royalty statement I receive will reflect actual earnings, not how much farther I have to go until I’ve paid back my advance. And, as Sawhney writes, “The real virtue of working with an independent publisher is the artistic experimentation they not only allow, but encourage.”

But publishing is still an industry facing big changes. Kassia Krozser’s Booksquare post (or I should say critique) on the panel “New Think for Old Publishers” at South by Southwest 2009 offers an interesting and important look into the publishing industry of today. The panel’s goal was to address how traditional publishing would interact with our new digital world, “to learn what is going right and wrong in publishing…to learn how books and blogs can work.” Yet, Krozser writes, “Not one word spoken in that session, either from the panelists or from the audience, was new or innovative.”

Krozser followed up with another post yesterday on the same topic — it’s great food for thought, not only for publishers but for writers as well. Like it or not, publishing as we’ve known it will continue to change, and if publishers and writers alike aren’t ready, what’s likely to suffer the most is all those good books out there that won’t be able to find their audiences.



Brilliant people I know

By Midge Raymond,

I was just updating my Goodreads page and realized how many of the amazing books I’m currently reading have been written by people I know. For example: Diana Joseph‘s hilarious and touching memoir I’m Sorry You Feel That Way, and Telling True Stories, co-edited by Wendy Call and Mark Kramer.

And as I was thinking about what to read at tomorrow night’s Hugo House Teacher Reading, it reminded me that I’ll get to see Carolyne Wright, whose gorgeous Seasons of Mangoes and Brainfire I’m reading now, and Clare Meeker, the award-winning children’s writer who is also my writing buddy.

And I’m eagerly awaiting the publication of Janna Cawrse Esarey‘s The Motion of the Ocean, and Audrey Young’s The House of Hope and Fear.

And, to venture beyond books for a moment, I just saw Rob Postrozny‘s beautiful short film, Forgetting Betty, and it’s very clear why it got such great reception at the festivals, including Best Short Film at the Chicago Film Festival.

NOTE: This is just a partial list of the brilliant people I know…I’ll keep updating.



How to write a query letter…

By Midge Raymond,

Literary agent Janet Reid‘s awesome blog, Query Shark, is a great way to learn how to write a good query. You can send in a query to get posted and critiqued — but even if she doesn’t post and critique your own query, you can learn a lot about what to do (and what not to do) by reading the other posts.

A couple of Query Shark’s recent tips:

  • Always put “Query” in the subject line of an email, so agents will realize that titles like “Unleashing Your Inner Sex Demon” aren’t spam.
  • Identify who the main character is (sounds obvious, but see Query #101).
  • Always use word count, not page numbers.
  • Be humbly professional (don’t tell an agent “time is of the essence” or mention your membership in Mensa).
  • PROOFREAD. I know the Query Shark isn’t the only stickler for correct spelling and punctuation.

This is just a fantastic blog – in part because people tend to learn best by making mistakes (or studying others’ mistakes). And with the variety and number of queries posted here, it’s impossible not to pick up a few good tips. Best yet, at the end of the critique, Reid lets you know whether your query would’ve been a form rejection, a request for pages, etc.



When Homework Collides…

By Midge Raymond,

This little gem comes from McGarrity Harney, from the Southern California Writer’s Conference:

“The star-crossed lovers raced toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Chicago at  7 a.m. going 68 miles per hour, the other having left Milwaukee at 8:15 going 75 miles per hour.”

It comes from a real assignment, McGarrity says: The student apparently got his math and English homework confused.



A Few More “Don’ts”…

By Midge Raymond,

Last week, literary agent Colleen Lindsay proclaimed March 5 as #Queryfail Day on Twitter — a day on which a group of online agents, as well as book and magazine editors, post about what exactly makes them stop reading in a query letter.

It’s a wonderful idea (one she indicated will be a regular or semi-regular event) — and please keep in mind, as I reprint a couple of their examples of bad queries here, that this was done in the spirit of education:

  • “I’ve queried more than 50 agents and have gotten nowhere and now I’m querying you.”
  • “I don’t think you’re the right agent for me, but could you pass my query along to some of your colleagues?”
  • “I know you don’t represent children’s literature, but I hope you’ll make an exception in my case.”
  • “This is my first attempt at writing a fictional novel.”

While we’re on the subject, I’d like to add a few “don’ts” of my own. As a fiction reader for a literary magazine, I don’t receive queries but full manuscript submissions — and it’s the cover letters that are often problematic in my case. First, you must know that no matter how absurd your cover letter may be, I’m always going to read your story (it’s a karma thing). Second, you must realize that not all editors feel this way, and that a cover letter does have the potential to taint a reader’s experience of a story.

I always say keep your cover letters short and to the point: give editors what the submission guidelines ask for and little or nothing more. Including a word count and a short bio can’t hurt — but adding a three-paragraph description of your story could. (Why? Because by telling us what the story is about, you 1) take away the pleasure of discovery that goes along with a first read; 2) limit the uniquely individual experience that we might have were we able to draw our own conclusions, and 3) offer very little incentive to read the story from beginning to end, if we already know how it turns out.)

A few other things to keep in mind…

  • If you mention a famous writer you’ve studied with extensively, be sure you spell this author’s name correctly.
  • Send clean copies of your manuscript, not worn-out, coffee-stained photocopies with torn pages.
  • Make sure there are no pages missing in your manuscript, particularly those very important pages at the beginning or end.
  • While we like knowing whether yours is a simultaneous submission, it is not necessary to list all the magazines to which you have simultaneously submitted your story.

This is, of course, a small and incomplete list … and it probably makes me sound like one of the crankier editors out there (really, I’m not). But I do admit my bias in favor of the simple, straightforward query: Here’s my story; here’s a little about me; thanks so much for your time. As a writer, that’s what I send out. As an editor, it allows me to get straight to the work at hand, to focus on the story itself. And that’s where, as both editors and writers, we want our readers to be.



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.