Sunday, October 30, 2011

Mind Your Business...

They Might Be Giants performing in Richmond, Virginia, in September

The awesome, rhythmic, refrain of the They Might Be Giants’ song Cloisonné is “Mind your business.” Who hasn’t wanted to say that someone? For writers, really all creative types, it can be particularly difficult to receive unsolicited advice in response to our work. Haven’t you wanted to tell someone to “Mind your business”?

My husband and I saw the band They Might Be Giants perform in Richmond, Virginia, last month, and they sang this song. I’m still humming it. You can read the lyrics here. No, I don’t really understand what the song means, but it is a catchy tune none-the-less. Maybe it is their obvious love of rhyme and sound, like a language poem, that moves me when I hear them sing it. You might fall more in love with it if you watch the video here.

So, the next time someone offers you unnecessary advice, you might sing them this song. Or least key parts of it.  

Friday, October 28, 2011

Writing Prompt: Name your home

Georgetown, Washington, D.C. 

Write on the name you would give your home (home can be defined as where you live or somewhere you feel at home.)

Write non-stop for five to ten minutes and then go back and underline the key lines/ideas/images that emerge.

I'd love to read your piece or responses to the exercise below in the Comments section.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

{Guest Blog Post} Mule to Writing Feedback

I was happy to meet Lisa Blackwell, author of Are You a Mule or a Queen?: How to Have Others Honor Your Wishes and Value Your Time, this month at the Martha’s Vineyard Writing Residency. Today she kindly shares advice about receiving feedback on your writing in a group or class. If you are in the D.C. area, you can learn more about this subject at her upcoming class on Constructive Criticism at the Women’s Center in D.C. on December 3.

Lisa Blackwell teaches and writes short stories and non-fiction to highlight the quality-of-life struggles of women in today’s fast paced world. In addition to her recent self-help guide, she has been published in make/shift Magazine, CALYX Literary Journal, and Phati’tude Literary Magazine. Visit her website for more. 

Mule to Writing Feedback

Several years ago, I was working on a novel. Being a new writer at the time, I wanted to get feedback and critiques from anyone who was willing to read my work. I attended writers’ conferences and writers’ groups hoping to get commentary on my work from others who were more experienced. Some of the constructive feedback I got was quite helpful and helped me grow as a writer. However, some of the writers with whom I shared my work didn’t get my genre and couldn’t relate to the characters’ dialect or slang; others were pretty tactless in the way they delivered the feedback. This caused me to do endless rewriting and altered my voice in my own work. I became a “mule” to diverse, and sometimes unqualified, opinions of my writing instead of selectively soliciting feedback from a trusted few.

Sometimes I would put down my work, go back to it a week later, and find that the writing didn’t even sound like me. My characters’ behavior and dialogue didn’t sound familiar to me.  My insecurity as a writer made me addicted to obtaining feedback and validation from others, which caused the characters I had created sound like strangers. Many people will want your writing to conform to the style of writing they have been educated to like. I learned a valuable lesson with my first work. It taught me to put down my voice in a “raw” and “unfiltered” form and then let three people I have come to trust review and provide editing and commentary critique. These folks are of course very experienced in my genre and subject matters, and don’t try to alter my voice, but ask questions that can enhance or fill gaps in the story I’m trying to tell. Most writers write to express themselves without constraints. When providing feedback to other writers it is important to suggest and identify techniques to help clarify something for other readers, but don’t make judgments on what was written, even if you don’t like what is being said. Be kind and thoughtful with your comments so you encourage the writer to go forward; this is especially important for new writers. Writing creates its own synergy, and the more you write, the better you become at it.

As a writer, I have learned that many readers may not get what you are saying. This has proved to be the case with most writers who have received rejections during the course of their careers. However, rejections don’t necessarily mean that what you are saying isn’t worth hearing. Many authors have refused to allow themselves to become “mules” to rejection and negative feedback. They write for themselves and not their audience. Authors who stay loyal to self-expression have often gone on to achieve great sales and success from their work.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Writing Coaching & Recent Article in the New Yorker Magazine

I enjoyed reading Atul Gawande’s article, “Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you?” in the New Yorker earlier this month. While I’m a writing coach and Gawande is a surgeon who employed a coach in his field, the emphasis on a trained professional offering someone individually tailored advice and assistance is crucial to every field.

Here is Gawande’s definition of a coach from the article: The concept of a coach is slippery. Coaches are not teachers, but they teach. They’re not your boss—in professional tennis, golf, and skating, the athlete hires and fires the coach—but they can be bossy. They don’t even have to be good at the sport. The famous Olympic gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi couldn’t do a split if his life depended on it. Mainly, they observe, they judge, and they guide.

Here are a few more definitions throughout the article from different moments in the article: Expertise is thought to be not a static condition but one that doctors must build and sustain for themselves. (…)Good coaches know how to break down performance into its critical individual components. (…)Good coaches (…) speak with credibility, make a personal connection, and focus little on themselves.

I remember having a long conversation with a composition writing teacher at last year’s AWP conference about how I call myself a “coach” when I work privately. He said that he considers himself a coach even when he is working as a professor in the for-credit classroom. Our job, as composition writing instructors to writers (including ESL students and remedial students), is to help lead the students to write better. By practicing the skill, the students can improve. We have to help guide them through the practice while teaching certain craft skills that can help (even if/when the writers decide to break those skill later and create something new.)

To become a writer, is it obligatory to attend an MFA program and then hire a private writing coach while attending workshops for a lifetime? Of course not. But it can be helpful to have attentive outside readers, like some current editors and many earlier editors, who will help our individual voices and writing to be as strong as possible.

I have some openings for private students this winter, if you are interested in working with me as your writing coach. Write to me (chloemiller(at)gmail(dot)com) for more information or read more here

Friday, October 21, 2011

Writing Prompt: Your name

Write about your name. Suggestions: You may consider your name’s origin, how you’ve changed your name (last name, nickname, name change, etc.), how others use your name, your relationship to your name, your name’s relationship to history, your name’s relationship to your family or ethnic history, etc.

Write non-stop for five to ten minutes and then go back and underline the key lines/ideas/images that emerge.

I'd love to read your piece or responses to the exercise below in the Comments section.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

An Unquenchable Thirst by Mary Johnson

A good memoir does more than simply retell someone’s personal story. It illuminates a larger world through an individual experience. In the case of Mary Johnson’s memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life, she offers her own tale of joining, and later leaving, Mother Teresa’s order.

Reading this book, I knew I was reading something important. It is a respectful and thoughtful meditation on one woman’s experiences. Considering the intense privacy of the Catholic Church, this book offers an inside view into the real joys, the possibilities for joy and the many abuses.

Johnson enters the order an intellectually curious and emotionally hungry young woman. She does nothing without considering its implications within the order and church, and its relationship to the outside world. Towards the end, Johnson writes in Chapter 31, “I was angry with the Church for demanding celibacy of her priests, and mad at God for giving me a vocation that demanded I sacrifice intimacy and intellect.” The demands on the women in the order are extreme and hard to imagine. Mary makes it possible to see why the nuns and the church made certain decisions while that very insight makes it clear that changes need to made.

I met Mary Johnson in 2009 at the A Room of her Own Retreat in New Mexico. I remember listening to her read a section from the memoir and not wanting to wait until it was published to hear the rest. After (or before) you read the book, be sure to check out her website. There are interviewsphotos, readers guide and more. While you're waiting for your copy of the book to arrive, you can browse the beginning of the book. 

In the epilogue, Johnson writes, “So much depends on the stories we tell ourselves, and on the questions we ask, or fail to ask.” Such a good lesson for life and writing.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Rest of Your Life

The Rest of Your Life, a movie by Chris Wieland and my husband Hans Noel, is now available on Indieflix. For $4.95, you can stream the movie immediately.

I'm sure you'll enjoy watching it as much as I do.

Here's a summary:

It's Friday afternoon, and Dave McGuiness has a problem. Last night, his longtime girlfriend, Karen, told him that she wants to get married. She'd like an answer by Monday, but Dave's not sure he's ready to propose. Before Dave can figure the pros and cons of getting married, he learns that the rumor mill is two steps ahead of him. Everyone in the South Suburbs of Chicago already thinks he and Karen are already "officially" engaged.

Dave's buddy Marv knows just what will help Dave forget his dilemma for a while. He takes Dave and Dave's brother Ben out to party all weekend long. Marv figures that if this is Dave's last weekend before he's a married man, it had better be one he won't soon forget.

But Dave's got a bigger problem. He figures that if he does marry Karen, he may never get a chance to do something with his life. He's pretty sure there must be more to it than living in the suburbs, working for his brother-in-law and hanging out with the boys, but he's never gotten around to figuring out what that something else is.

Dave's running out of time. What’s he going to do with the rest of his life?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Writing Prompt: First Taste

Describe your first taste of a favorite flavor/dish/item/etc. You can choose something simple like butter, everyday like potato chips or exotic like foie gras. 

Write non-stop for five to ten minutes and then go back and underline the key lines/ideas/images that emerge.

I'd love to read your piece or responses to the exercise below in the Comments section.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Whip Smart: Memoir by Melissa Febos

I sometimes wonder if I should include certain details about my life in poems. When in doubt, I test the detail with this question: Will it serve the truth of the poem? It would be petty to add something simply to shock a reader, decorate an action, confess something or hurt someone through my writing.

Hearing a story about Whip Smart, a memoir by Melissa Febos, on NPR’s Fresh Air last year, my first thought was it couldn’t be anything more than a series of shocking stories. How else could the story of a professional dominatrix enter into literature? The more I listened to the interview, however, the more intriguing and thoughtful the book sounded. Of course, I was also curious about the simple details of a life of a dominatrix. What could be more different from my own life?

I read Whip Smart over the course of two days, since I very truly couldn’t put it down. It was fascinating. Melissa Febos offers insight into her experience from the perspective of a woman searching to find balance and a path through our very human, everyday existences. She poses questions about power, femininity, feminism, gender roles, independence, and other issues that we all grapple with differently in different settings. Febos explores, answers, and then answers the questions again when the situations change. 

If I were 18 again and packing for my first year at Smith College, I know that I would have tucked this book away along with Catcher in the Rye and everything by Sylvia Plath. As an adult, it is exciting to read a mature exploration of not only a loss of innocence, but a regaining of humanity.

For more on Melissa Febos, visit her author website. There are links to her publications, readings and interviews. There’s even an excerpt from Whip Smart. I was happy to learn that she’s not only a graduate of the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College, but also teaches there.

Are you working on a memoir and struggling to decide which details to include? If you are in the D.C. metro area, you might consider registering for my upcoming Memoir Writing Workshop at Politics & Prose.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Marriage, Writers, and Residencies

Photo by Tony Richards

In 2009, my husband and I stood in front of a judge, friends and family to declare our union. (A “union” with a nod towards the efforts to legalize gay marriage, as New York State has finally done.) Two years later we are celebrating on Martha’s Vineyard with a short vacation before I start a writing residency

There are debates in writing circles about who makes the best partner for a writer. Some vote for another writer and others will vote for the opposite (Who would that be? A banker?) in order to eliminate any competition. There are famous writer couples, like Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon, and other writers who keep their love lives private. For me, it was a thrill to find a partner who supports my writing, offers honest feedback, and understands my dedication to a lifelong project because he, too, has his own as a political scientist

When I first mentioned applying to this, and other, residencies, my husband smiled and encouraged me to submit the strongest application possible. He said to stay away as long as I felt was necessary. Instead of fearing that I was abandoning him, he said how much he’d miss me while being proud of me. He also suggested a great holiday before I started. 

I support him and his academic work in the same way. We both travel for conferences and are committed to a job that extends far beyond a regular 9-5 week. I am inspired to work even harder on my creative projects by watching his dedication to his work.

Marriage was once a very traditional partnership. There were duties to be fulfilled by each gender. I am thankful to live in a culture and era when that is no longer required. I am thankful to be married to a person who has helped me to see how expansive our roles can be, no matter how much I might like to cook and do some traditional "female" activities.

I’ve tried to write essays and poems about what it feels like to marry and be immersed in such a partnership. Everything I write fails to convey the deep love, devotion and intimacy we have on so many levels. That is, even when we are apart in order to dedicate ourselves to our work. Perhaps it is even more important in those moments. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Writing Prompt: Recipe

Homemade beer bread

Describe your relationship to a dish that includes preparing it, watching someone preparing it or reading about it being prepared. Focus on listing all of the details (consider natural light, colors, growth, temperature, smell, etc.)

Write non-stop for five to ten minutes and then go back and underline the key lines/ideas/images that emerge.

I'd love to read your piece or responses to the exercise below in the Comments section.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Poetry Readings: A Guide To Giving Them {or Preparing for Them Is Useful to Writers}

Reading Poetry at the Third Thursday Series in Takoma Park, Maryland (9/2011)

Maybe it sounds selfish to say that you should read your creative work to an audience because it benefits you, the writer. Of course, it should be enjoyable to the audience because they have a chance to hear your work the way that you intended for it to be read and heard. In the end, however, giving a reading can help you to improve your craft.

Sound of Poetry
Poetry developed from an oral tradition and the sound of poems remains important. This is true for all poems, from performance work to poems that play with the blank page they are printed on (for example, concrete poems.) In the beginning, poems generally rhymed (it was easier to remember them that way) and were sung. Only later were poems written down and shared in books instead of through song.  Poems no longer need to rhyme, but their origins in our voice, language and even rhythm of our own heartbeats, inform the words on a page.

As you write, revise, edit and even proofread your work, you should read your poems aloud. If, as you are reading, your tongue trips over a phrase, that is a suggestion that your syntax or even word choice needs some work. If the poem quite literally sounds the way you intended for it to sound in your mind and mimics the instructions given by the poem on the page (through punctuation, blank space, line breaks, etc.), then your poem has succeeded.

Reading Time Limit
If you are invited to give a reading, you will be given a time limit. Of course, you don’t want to be the poet who finishes too early or drones on and on, so you must practice reciting your poems before the reading and timing yourself. As you read your poems over and over, you’ll notice what words well and falls flat or simply doesn’t sound right. Be sure to practice reading slowly, enunciating and projecting your voice (unless you know there will be a microphone.) If you read at an optimal pace, you’ll be in the habit of reading that way for the actual reading. It is human nature to get nervous and speed along. During the reading, you might try reading even more slowly than you think sounds right.

Commentary on the Poems?
Should you add commentary between the poems as an introduction or background information? There are different schools of thought on this. On one hand, your poems should be able to stand on their own, away from you and any possible explanations. On the other hand, the audience has come to hear you, the poet, and enjoys learning more about the work than might be available on the page. You decide what you feel most comfortable doing. In general, I recommend some information, but not too much. After all, the audience does want to hear you read your poetry.

Choosing & Ordering your Selection
The last thing to consider is the order of the poems. Please don’t be the poet who asks how much time she has left or make the audience watch you flip through pages as you ponder what you should read. Honor your audience and your own work by preparing before the reading. Group poems by common themes or style. Practicing reading your final drafts for the reading will help you to learn new things about the poems and help you to see which order fits best. This might even inform the order of the poems in your chapbook or book length manuscript.

Should you read that controversial poem that makes you uncomfortable or contains something you don’t want anyone to know? No, of course not. Only read work you wish to have published in literary journals or in a book that anyone – from the adoring public to your best friend to family members to ex-partners – might read. Again, as you prepare the short list of poems for the readings, you’ll recognize which ones truly seem finished and ready for the world to read and hear. Perhaps the others no longer belong in your manuscript or to be sent out for publication. This is useful for you to know.

Poetry Reading as Public Speaking
There are many different ways to read your poetry. I recommend attending many readings and noticing the different kinds of styles. You can also look up poetry readings on Youtube and on author sites. The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival has a great collection of videos on Youtube.

As you organize your talk, remember to thank the audience, the host and the other readers, if there are other readers. Make it clear through pauses when a poem begins and when one ends. Before your final poem (or last short series), let the audience know that you are about to end. You might want to thank them again before noting that you are about to begin on your final poem. These signals to the audience helps them to feel comfortable in your hands and lets them relax while you lead them through your work.

Of course, who isn’t nervous before a reading? If I’m sweating and worried about accidently burping into the mike, how can I give a reading that makes the audience feel comfortable? Frankly, public speaking isn’t easy. Practice will help and so will faking it. That’s right, fake being calm. No one has to know that your palms are sweaty or your heart is beating fast. Work on breathing slowly and controlling your voice. After a poem or two, you’ll relax and even start to enjoy it. After all, people have come to hear you read. You have an entire audience listening and enjoying your work. Feel the energy in the room and enjoy it. You’ve worked hard for this moment. 

What other suggestions would you add?

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke

Two months after my aunt passed, I started to read The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke, a memoir about the loss of her mother. It was so true and sad that I couldn’t bear to read it. While I put it aside, it continued to haunt me. I had to ask my husband to hide it.

A few months later, I felt ready and even eager to read it. My husband told me where the book was (in his underwear drawer) and I finished it in two days. Yes, I cried. Yes, it was hard to read. But in reading it, I recognized my emotions, the same ones resulting from a different situation, and it helped me to heal and better understand myself.

There’s no single answer to the question of how someone should mourn a loved one. The most thrilling part about this memoir is not that O’Rourke relays her individual story, but that she shares what she learned by reading related literature and studies. She integrates revelatory moments from her research into the narrative.

O’Rourke’s prose is honest, self-aware and informed. Here is a thoughtful paragraph from Chapter 7, “I had been sent healing workbooks and the Buddhist texts about how to die. I had been sent On Grief and Grieving and On Death and Dying and the Bible and memoirs about deaths of parents. I read nearly all of them; I was hungry for death scenes. C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, his slim account of the months after this wife’s death from cancer, was the most evocative. Grief is paradoxical: you know you must let go, and yet letting go cannot happen all at once. The literature of mourning enacts that dilemma; its solace lies in the ritual of remembering the dead and then saying, There is no solace, and also, This has been going on a long time.

After my aunt passed, I found some comfort in literature and found O’Rourke’s instinct to look towards writing familiar. At the end of the book, O’Rourke lists the books she read, both those she references in the text and those she read that weren’t mentioned by name. She lists critical studies and nonfiction, books on the psychology of grief, fiction, poetry, drama, and memoir. I look forward to following her lead.

For more, you might be interested in NPR’s review and re-printing of the first chapter.