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.

 

 

Don’t-Call-It-A-Vacation Email Responder

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Layout 1Work so busy that you can’t answer your personal email? Try this handy “I’m too busy to pay attention” email response with bonus points for shameless self-promotion. 

Hello and thank you for your email!

If this message is Litquake-related, please contact me at my Litquake email address. If it’s not, please know that my response will be delayed until after October 18th, after the festival.

Until then your best chance of catching up with me is at the festival itself!

Check out our schedule!

I’ll be dancing here (but come for the charismatic poet) and reading here.

 

X is for eXposure

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XWhen I first started blogging, I had a purpose, a reason to disseminate information through a blog. I was pregnant with twins. Our odds were terrible (50/50 they’d survive the pregnancy without complications) and we wanted to keep our family informed without having to make 19 different phone calls to give the same information.

The blog was private. I blogged about the pregnancy, the birth, and the early NICU days. Then the idea to write a memoir about the experience was inserted into my head, probably during a middle-of-the-night alien abduction that involved some kind of nasal probe (to insert the idea, of course) and memory erasure (to protect the identity of the aliens, of course). Which meant that I needed to take the blog public and build a platform. I needed to get my name out there and get some exposure.

There is an ugly side to getting exposure. For example, one way to get a lot of views and shares is to write a post that goes viral. And one way to go viral is to piss people off so much that they want to share your affronts so that other people get pissed off. People like to share things that piss them off. (I suppose you could also write a particularly witty post, like this one here, but only if you are particularly witty.)

However, when total strangers are pissed off at you, they write really mean things. They stalk you on the Internet and post links to your Facebook profile that you thought was private. Suddenly something you thought was particularly witty (“Janine works at Keeping Her Toenails Shiny!”) is suddenly turned on its head and now strangers are congratulating each other on the cleverness of their insults.

So then the blog become private again.

But you still need a platform, because the aliens’ nasal probes have altered the neural connections in your frontal lobes (not to mention your hippocampus) and their plan for galactic domination by making people want to write memoirs is not deterred by Internet trolls.

So here we are. Blogging here and there, like trying to change the color of the ocean one drop of food coloring at a time but not wanting to make the sort of splash that wakes up the trolls.

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?)

S is for Social Media

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SSo I’m doing the A-Z blog challenge this month. Where for the month of April (excluding Sundays) you write on a different letter of the alphabet. You might have figured that out already, since today should be the 22nd of April.

Here’s how it works:

You officially enroll in the A-Z challenge (I have). You put up a badge saying you’ve enrolled (I haven’t) and in addition to blogging everyday (I have), you visit other blogs and comment on them in order to drive traffic to your blog (I haven’t).

And because I’ve signed up for the challenge for all the wrong reasons (to see if I can write 26 blog posts in one month, not to drive traffic to my blog), I’m always a little startled when someone does comment. Much the same way I’d be startled if I were talking to myself on the bus and someone answered one of my rhetorical questions.

I know who I’m talking to when I post to Facebook. I’m posting to actual people I know. Many of them I’ve known for a long time. We carpooled to ballet lessons together or we’re applying to the same writer’s conference or we just saw each other earlier in the day.

I used to know who I was talking to when I blogged. It was my mom and seven of my 400 Facebook friends who clicked on the link in my Facebook Feed. I think that’s why I don’t tweet. I don’t know who I’m talking to. How can I craft a message for a faceless audience? How would I even know what to say?

Or more precisely, I write something, get a comment and think, “Who are you?” I forget that I was broadcasting something.

It’s ok. You can say something. I probably won’t freak out.

P is for Profile

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PEvery now and again I have to find write a bio for something. I hate it. Well, I used to hate it. But each time I had to write a bio, I turned it into a blog post and tagged it as bio. (That’s on the obscure blog of Dinky Thoughts). Then when I needed to write a bio for something new, I’d go through what I’d written already. Of course it gets easier each time you do it.

Now it’s time to write group profiles and book summaries, which is just as annoying to write and wordsmith. This is what I spent the morning crafting for our Create Space page, our Amazon author page, and our Goodreads profile.

Here’s today’s extended version:

In Mamas Write: 29 Tales of Truth, Wit, and Grit, twenty-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.

If you are a mother who dreams about writing, here’s all the inspiration you need…

 –Rachel Sarah, author of Single Mom Seeking

The Write On Mamas follow a simple but effective formula: meet regularly to write together, read the work aloud, and repeat. It has worked for them for years, and now their anthology gathers the very best of all that writing. These writers dig deep and don’t shy away from tough subjects, but their essays sparkle with humor and energy, too. From gauzy preemies in the NICU to a grown son, brooding with piercings and dreadlocks; from dreams of being writers (or mothers, or mermaids) to dreams of just one good nap—it’s all here, and it makes a great read. 

–Caroline Grant, editor-in-chief of Literary Mama and associate director of the Sustainable Arts Foundation

Here’s a book full of promise:  You, too, can raise children and stories in the same family!  These courageous writers glean wisdom from their dual creative endeavors and offer it to us with honesty, humor, and grace.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, author of Hannah, Delivered

Even for the most enthusiastic among us, motherhood can be rife with insecurity and isolation. How perfect, then, that these mamas (and papa!) have come together through their writing, supporting each other through the creative process and the baring of their hearts. I wish every mom could be a part of a community like this to remind her that she is not alone.

–Nancy Rose, author of Raise the Child You’ve Got—Not the One You Want

Mamas Write examines the things that drive us to the page both as readers and writers. […] But these essays are about much more than why mamas write. These writers are grappling with universals: love, acceptance, disappointment, grief.

–From the Foreword by Kate Hopper

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.

 

L is for “Like Me”

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LDo you like me? Will you like me? Did you like me yet? Oh, because it’s oh-so-important that you like me. On Facebook, I mean.

Because I need you to like me. All of you. Even if I don’t know you or care to hang out with you. Because if you like me (and then tell your friends to like me), then I can tell other people how many people like me and then they’ll think…

Quite frankly, I don’t know what they will think. I know what they’re supposed think. They’re supposed to be super-impressed if the number’s really high.  And then my Worth points grow in the video game of life. (Conversely, if the number’s really low, the way my number is, then they will shake their heads and pity me.)

Of course, what they should be thinking, is “Wow! You certainly know how to navigate the changing face of social media! You must be really adept at manipulating Facebook’s ever-changing algorithm!”

Or—“OMG. You must be one of those people who sends self-promotional emails with lots of exclamation points bcc-ing everyone in your inbox, e-flogging them into submission until they click the stupid thumb’s up button on the url you’ve inserted into your signature. That never works. I’m not surprised that you have such few likes.”

But you know what? I don’t care what you think about my number of Facebook likes. I don’t care if you think I’m a loser such few people have bothered to click on those links. Or if you think I’m a shameless bragster for trying to get the number higher.

I couldn’t care less what you think of me for trying to get as many people to like my Facebook page.

But I do want you to like me.

So if you wouldn’t mind clicking on this link and “liking me?” OMG, that would like, make me like, totally happy.

And if you need me to, I’ll totally like you back.

H is for Hidden Treasures

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HLast Thursday the boys and I went to Napa to pick up the postcards for our book launches. You’ve seen them—the gorgeous cover with the witty subtitle. The postcards are fab (you might see them at a bookstore near you! If you are near Diesel in Oakland, Book Passage in Corte Madera or Bookmine in Napa.)

“You know,” my friend Teri said. (Teri is our PR magician. She also has twins. And she wrote this killer essay for the anthology that is featured in the North Bay Bohemian this week.) “Down the block and across the street is a firefighters museum.”

This is the part where I talk about how great this firefighters museum is—the old fire trucks they had, all from the Napa fleet. How there are two trucks that kids can climb on. That they have the old fashioned bell on a rope.

Then this should be the paragraph where I talk about the nice curator who let us use the bathroom (or maybe that paragraph should be cut) and gave the boys coloring sheets of fire trucks.

The final paragraph might wax nostalgic about the smell of the museum, the yellowed papers that were type-written. The old-fashioned fire extinguishers. The way the notices reminded you of a time when fires ate entire towns, when water was not so easily transported.

Or maybe I end with the boys in the car on the drive home, Wagner carefully holding his coloring sheet with his thumb and forefinger, and with his other hand, tracing the outline of the fire chief’s car before the rumble of the engine coaxes him to sleep.