Taking Matters Into My Own Hands

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Breaking news! This blog post was recently featured on She Writes. Click here to read the same thing there.

Before I became a writer (or a wife or a mother), I was a ballet dancer. I danced in Europe for most of my career—in Iceland, Italy, Germany, and Austria. For nearly six years I stitched together gigs here and there, which required a mix of talent, timing, and connections. I thought I’d finally cracked the code when I landed three great jobs that would keep me employed for the next year.

But then, all in the same week, the three companies contacted me again. I sat on the couch with a letter from Austria, a fax from Germany, and a telegram in Italian—all informing me of the same news: they were rescinding the job offers. None of the companies was willing to file the paperwork to extend my EU visa. It had nothing to do my dancing.

This is the scene that came to mind this summer when I read email after email from the agents, editors, and publishers I’d come to know in the six years since I started writing the memoir about my identical twins boys who’d been born three and a half months premature.

“The writing is lovely,” they all said in one form or another. “But we don’t know how to market your book” (which, I realized, is code for “we don’t know who will read this.”) The emails wished me luck and sometimes even said that mine was a story that deserved to be told (after, of course, informing me that they would not be the ones helping me tell it.)

I had a choice. I could continue to fish for agents. I could send out a hundred queries to find the one agent willing to go to bat for me and hope that she would have the same persistence looking for editors and publishers.

Or I could take things into my own hands.

I didn’t have to go back to America all those years ago. I could have stayed in Italy and appealed the decisions. But I didn’t want to spend months writing letters in languages I didn’t quite know, filing papers and calling offices when I could just go back home and dance.

That’s how I feel about my memoir. These last six years I’ve learned a lot about writing and the publishing industry. I’ve learned a lot about building a writing community. I even helped found a nonprofit writing group for moms. Three years ago, we self-published an anthology of our essays. When I realized that I knew who to contact to edit my work, who could design the book cover, and who would be my publicist, the decision to publish my book myself was as easy as boarding the next plane for home.

Which brings us back to me crying on the couch with three rejection letters. The week after I flew home from Italy, I was offered a job dancing with a ballet company in San Francisco. Shortly after that, I met my future husband. The friend who introduced us is now godmother to my daughter.

I still wonder what might have happened if I’d tried to keep dancing abroad, just as I might always wonder what would have happened if I kept querying agents. But I also know that leaving when I did helped set the stage (no pun intended) for future accomplishments—a college degree, a family, a new career as a writer.

Sometimes it’s up to you to shape your own destiny. And when you recognize that the time is right, it’s up to you to make it happen.

 

 

V is for Vicarious

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VSo. I didn’t write a post for today.

But luckily for you, someone else did. Last night was the first of many book launch parties. Here’s fellow WoM Claire Hennessy’s run-down of the night. And here’s WoM Lorrie Goldin’s account of the night as well as an eloquently written backstory behind getting shit done when you don’t feel like it. Or the way Lorrie puts it: “the alchemy of the collective transforms inertia and demoralization into something altogether different.”

 

T is for Thank You

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TBack in a past life, I was a ballerina. Only I never called myself that. No dancer uses the word “ballerina.” I sort of like the word now. There’s a lot of stuff I grasp now that I had hated in my previous life.

My entire dance career felt like a fight. That’s part of being a perfectionist. You have to keep the struggle alive. You can’t just be satisfied with something. You have to tear yourself up because you are yearning for that satisfaction and at the same time are terrified that you only have success because of your drive.

I was thinking about this today because I’m in the midst of writing all these emails to people—we’ve got a book launch party! Can you come? And just a few years ago, it would have twisted me up inside to ask people to come.

When I was dancing, sometimes I wouldn’t even come out for my bow. I could do this because many of our bows were ensemble bows and no one would have missed me except for the people on stage. Somehow I’d talk myself into a frenzy. A bow was self-indulgent. It seemed needy and insincere.

I don’t need those people’s approval, their applause. And let’s face it, they’re not clapping for me or even for us. They’re clapping because that’s what you’re supposed to do at the end of a show. Well! I for one will not participate in this farce!

I only sat out the bow once or twice. Turns out directors find that more selfish and self-indulgent than just bowing to the crowd.

I know, you’re wondering how I’m going to bring this back to the book launch party, how I can possibly justify these shameless plugs.

Part of this has to do with the fact that my identity as a person is not as a writer. I’m ok being a lousy writer or a novice writer. Or an amateurish writer. I’m also ok with the idea that someone might think I’m a pretty good writer.

I was never like that as a dancer. I wasn’t ok with the idea that anyone would think I was a lousy dancer and at the same time, I balked at the idea that I could ever be a pretty good dancer. I had to keep the fight. No wonder if felt insincere to invite someone to see me perform.

By contrast my writing isn’t about me (even though all I do is write about me!). I know the two people on staff at the NICU who ask about my writing will genuinely want to know about this book event, even if they can’t go. So I’ll invite them. I know my neighbors are curious and the moms in Chiara’s classroom are supportive, so I’ll invite them. They’ll be too busy to come or they’ll want to come but can’t or who knows, maybe they are secretly hoping I’ll fail, although I don’t attract those sort of people the way I did when I was dancing.

And none of it will have to do with me.

Here’s what I didn’t get as a dancer: that the bow is the time when the dancer is face to face with the audience as a person, not a character, and she has the opportunity to thank them. Thank you for coming. I hope you enjoyed the show. Not, “I hope you liked me.” That’s what I didn’t get.

That’s what these parties are. A chance to celebrate. To say “thank you” to the people who have supported us and “look!” to the people who have been curious. They might not be able to come. They might not be able to buy books. But that’s not the point. The point is that I can thank them and I can thank them in the invitation to the dance.

If you’d like to be thanked in person, come join us tomorrow night at Diesel Books in Oakland at 7pm. Or Sunday, April 27th at the Bookmine in Napa. Or May 4th  in Corte Madera at Book Passage. How about May 8th in San Francisco or May 17th at Copperfields in Sebastopol? (See what I did there?)

N is for Necessary

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NSome days I spend all my time typing, crafting language, and composing efficient prose and none of that time writing. Today was a day like that. And now it’s the end of the day and I ask myself, what did I write?

Important stuff, it turns out. Bios, book descriptions, event coordination. It’s the sort of stuff you skim when you read which means that the flow of prose is just as important.

Here’s what I put together today. It’s for another book event. This one will be held at Scribd Headquarters, Thursday May 8th from 6 – 7pm, 539 Bryant street in San Francisco.

(Someone else gets the lucky task of writing the event description. I cut, pasted, and tweaked bios.)

 

Moderator: NANCY DAVIS KHO has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, TheRumpus.net, The Morning News, andSkirt! Magazine and is most recently anthologized in Moms Are Nuts (Vansant 2014). An avid music fan, she blogs about the years between being hip and breaking one at MidlifeMixtape.com.

Write On Mamas authors

British-born CLAIRE HENNESSY is writing a humorous memoir about reuniting with her childhood sweetheart “Bug,” after a thirty-year separation. Her work has been published in Nothing But The Truth So Help Me God –Transitions anthology (2014) and blogs at Crazy California Claire. In 2011 she was awarded the Scribd Favorite Funny Story Award. A co-founder and website editor of the Write On Mamas, Claire lives in Novato with Bug and an assortment of kids and animals.

LAUREL HILTON is the president of the Write On Mamas, as well as a founding member. Her work has appeared as part of KQED’s Perspectives series, A Band of Women’s Transitions anthology (2014), and elsewhere. Laurel resides in Mill Valley with her husband, two daughters, a very loyal Australian cattle dog, and a couple of rats.

MARY HILL is writing a memoir about learning to accept her son’s disability and then helping him do the same. Mary has read at Lit Crawl, and her essays have appeared in various disability-related newsletter and blogs, including her own, Finding Joy in Simple Things. Mary is a co-editor of Mamas Write.

MARIANNE LONSDALE writes personal essays and short stories, and is now focused on developing a novel. Her work has been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Literary Mama, Fiction365, The Sun, and Pulse and is an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. Marianne is a founding member of Write On Mamas. She lives in Oakland with her husband Michael and son Nicholas.

JANINE KOVAC is a founding member of the Write On Mamas and a talent-wrangler for Litquake, San Francisco’s literary festival. She is a co-editor of the anthology Mamas Write as well as a contributing author. Janine is currently reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler with her daughter and The Adventures of Spiderman with her twin boys when she isn’t working on her own books.

TERI STEVENS lives in Napa, California with her husband, son, and twin daughters. She is a founding member and marketing director of the Write On Mamas. In addition to writing young adult fiction, Teri writes about parenting and how she became the mother of three six-year-olds.

Here’s the description of our book:

In Mamas Write: 29 Tales of Truth, Wit, and Grittwenty-four moms (and one dad) share stories from their lives as writers and parents. Essays range from finding one’s calling as a writer through adopting a toddler; a tribute to a dying wife; an account of a premature birth; raising a transgender child; the joys of sharing a favorite childhood book. In a concluding interview, authors share funny and heartfelt responses to questions such as: “How does a busy parent make time for writing?” “Why do you write, and where?” “What writing books inspire you?” and “What holds you back from writing?” With a foreword by Kate Hopper, author of Ready For Air: A Journey through Premature Motherhood and Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers.

 

D is for Don’t Do It Yourself

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DIt takes about 36 seconds’ worth of research to realize that self-publishing is not DIY publishing. It can be, just like you could calk your own bathroom or bake your own wedding cake. But if quality matters, you might want some professional help.

We outsourced a lot of the work on Mamas Write, starting with the editing.

Originally we tried peer editing our own essays. We’re smart cookies, right? We broke into four groups of five writers and each group was in charge of editing its participants’ essays. It didn’t work out so well.

For starters, not everyone has the time to read and respond to four essays while revising her own. And not everyone is comfortable in the editor’s chair. And we didn’t yet have a theme. Well, we thought we did—why we write—but that’s such a broad question and we (read: me) was just discovering that broad answers are hard to write and they aren’t so interesting to read. Oh, wait. Should that be “(read: I)?” See what I mean about editing? It’s hard!

So we got ourselves a professional developmental editor. I know I talk so much about Kate Hopper it looks as if I get special brownie points for doing so. (I don’t —not yet, anyway.)

I’m not sure what it was like for other people to send their work off to a person they’d never met and then receive feedback on how to make their pieces stronger (although many of us had met Kate before). I won’t presume to speak about anyone else’s process, but I can talk about the results—tighter, brighter prose from what was already pretty good. Like wiping the fingerprints off a mirror. You can still see your reflection in a smudgy mirror, but cleaner is better.

Kate was just the first pro we hired. We also outsourced copyediting (who among us has the time to read The Chicago Manual of Style?), graphic design (although WoM and professional photographer Allison Tierney took our cover photo), layout and probably something else that I’ve forgotten because it’s not my job to remember.

Was it worth it? We think so, but don’t you want to judge for yourself by purchasing your own copy? (See, if I had a professional PR person, she could tell me if those last two lines will be effective or not).

C is for Cover

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CThe good thing about working in a group is that if you suck at something like, say, graphic design, chances are there are other people in your group who don’t suck [at graphic design]. And then if you need something like, say, a book cover you can go to those other people and ask them to do it.

For last year’s A-Z challenge, I took a bunch of pictures of letters. I have small kids, so naturally our house is littered with alphabets. There are letters on blocks and bath toys and benches. So I’ll take out my camera and take some pictures of letters, what’s the big deal?

If you actually go to our writing group’s page you will see gorgeous photos of letters made from flower petals and dripped cappuccino on the back deck. The colors are vibrant. Each letter is like its own little masterpiece.

There are not my photos. They are Allison Tierney’s photos. My photos are blurry and lousy and I won’t waste more thought trying to describe my incompetence in a thoughtful and witty way. Just know that I suck at it. (That’s why my “photos” for this year’s challenge are just letters in different fonts.)

Which is why I had nothing to do with our cover. Although I did threaten to put something together (which, I found, is a powerful motivator in getting someone else to do it.)

Didn’t Allison do a beautiful job?

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photo credit: Mary Allison Tierney

A is for Anthology

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AThe other night I had a dream. Someone from our writing group said to me, “I think I have an essay for the anthology. Is it too late to contribute?” In the dream I said, “It’s not too late at all!”

And then a dragon with a head that looked just like me came over and bit off the head of the person who’d told the other person, “Yes.”

I have no idea what that could mean.

The idea to put together an anthology came from the desire to kill a flock of birds with a single stone. Our writing group had just reformed with a new name and a new yet-to-be-determined home.

It would be nice to have a project that pulled the group together, I thought.

Many of our members were writing overviews or bios or applying for grants and wrote about the stories behind their memoirs or novels. The stories were riveting.

I want to read a whole book of these! I thought.

And of course, our members who were writing memoirs and novels were also building platforms.

Publishing a book is daunting, I thought. Wouldn’t it be great if we pooled our work?

So I said, “We should self-publish an anthology.”

That was two years ago. I realize now that what I really said was, “I’m going put together an anthology! And I’m going to bug all y’all until it happens.”

The moral of the story is that you need to be careful what you propose. You might end up with 29 essays and 25 contributors, a fabulous foreword from Kate Hopper, the gentle-but-anal copyediting services of Cary Tennis (that was weird to type but I suppose that all that is anal might as well be gentle, too). You might end up with a really close editorial team. Your writing might get a lot better from reading the writing of others’. You might learn about publishing industry and Kirkus reviews and how to read the fine print at Amazon.

And you might end up with dreams that you could still do a little bit better.

Look for our book Mamas Write, out soon available for purchase at a website near you.