Áine Greaney

Irish Author

Leading Creative Writing Workshops and Writing Stuff for 20+ years.

North Shore of Boston via Ireland

Filtering by Tag: writing

Writing Creative Nonfiction: 5 Things It's Taught Me About All Writing

Once, at one of those literary receptions, a male writer friend introduced me to a woman I didn't know. 

“This is Aine,” he said. “She’s “bitextual." 

The friend smiled and shook hands, but it was one of those twitchy, embarrassed smiles.   

 “She writes fiction and  non-fiction,” my male-writer friend explained. Hence: bi-textual."

“Oh! Oh, I see!” The smile brightened.  

I started out writing fiction, but then, soon after my first short-story publication, I began reading and dabbling in creative nonfiction.   I enjoyed the variety and the synergy between the two genres. The more I wrote in each, the more the differences and similarities emerged.  Also, I began to understand how some topics are a natural fit for first-person narrative, while others are just natural candidates for fiction.

For over two years now, I’ve been monotextual.  It's not a permanent condition. I hadn’t planned it this way.  But after many stalled fiction projects, I started a book-length memoir about my immigration to the USA at age 24. Soon into this project, I knew why my previous works had sputtered out. I needed to live monogamously in Non-Fiction-Land. Not `till death do us part.  But for as long as it takes to get this book (and a few essays) finished.

Now, I’m over one-third of the way into the memoir project, and waiting to hear my agent’s reaction to the most recently submitted material.

The creative nonfiction gurus tell us (correctly) that the best personal writing employs fiction-writing techniques. 

For me, the reverse has also been true.  Writing memoir has provided a window into the entire writing process. 

Mywritingdesk.jpg

Here are 5 things I've learned: 

1.     Master the narrative dance:   In memoir, we must immediately master that interplay between narrator,  author and narrative.   This three-way dance is damn hard.  But in fiction and non-fiction, a well-choreographed process makes for better work. 

2.     Be smart. Be very smart: Before I started this project, I read lots of women’s memoirs.  Some I abandoned after three chapters. Others I slogged through, hoping they would get better. Still others were high on cute, but low on substance. Then there were those few that I devoured, whose authors I wanted to invite to my house for tea. Heck, I'd have had them move right into my spare room.

So what made this last group different? Brain power or, rather, the author's courage to reveal that brain power on the written page.  From the narrative voice to the depth of analysis and supporting research, these women opted for intelligent over gimmicky--often, I'll bet, at the cost of book sales. These women know and show that good writing--in all genres--should be an interplay of the intellect and the heart.

3.     There are no short cuts:   I used to envy those authors who could bang out a novel in a year, or who landed a three-book contract with a three-year deadline.  Not anymore. Writing a memoir has  taught me how to write to my own creative rhythms, to slow down, go deeper, to give the work the time and thought and love it deserves.

 4.   Write brave: There is no writing scarier than memoir. But scare is good. Courage is good. Writing our way into and through the scare is what we must do.  For all writing. For all genres.

 5.   Meaning:  In his wonderful book, “The Van Gogh Blues,” author, creativity coach and psychologist  Eric Maisel writes about deriving and sustaining meaning in and from our creative work--and how our work must give meaning to our lives.  Writing my memoir has been an “Ah! Hah!” moment in which I finally “get” what Maisel means. It has re-invested me in the process of writing as a self- and life-sustaining venture, as a way of forging my own identity in the world.  

 

Do you write in more than one genre? If so, how do your two genres inform or cross-pollinate each other? 

 

Going On Writers Retreat: It's An Art

My messy table at writers retreat

My messy table at writers retreat

I'm on deadline for part of a book and a brand new essay and oh, yes, I need to catch up on some emails.  So I did what always works: I packed up my notebooks, laptop, books, pens and sweat pants and booked myself a room at my favorite retreat for artists and writers. This is Day 3 and the last night of my short residency. 

I've been here before. And before. Fifteen years ago, shortly after it was opened, I was one of the retreat's first residents, and now I'm a frequent flyer. I've come here in winter, spring, summer and fall. I've come when I've been under deadline, under stress, under duress and, once, after a family bereavement, in that underwater silence that is grief and loss. 

I've done my best work here.  I am my best self here.  I am equal parts productive and contemplative and have often banged out 60 - 100 pages in one long weekend (O.k., so on those mega-output stints, the personal hygiene is .. ahem .. spotty). 

Tonight, I just had one of those great writer-retreat conversations.  

Downstairs, at our lamplit dinner table, the retreat 's assistant director was marveling over how resident writers just seem to naturally and automatically respect each other's space--much more so than, say, passengers in an airport or guests in a hotel.  

"Do you think there's some secret or art to this?" She asked. "To being on writers retreat?" 

"Yes,"  I said. "Yes. Yes. and, well ... um .. Yes." 

"You're sure about that?" she teased. 

I laughed. 

There is an art. It isn't enough to just book a flight or plug the retreat address into your GPS and "head west, young writer."  Whether you're booked for a week or a weekend or a month, you will need to be ready and prepared to ... well ... retreat.   

Based on 15 years' experience (I also write about this in my book, "Writer with a Day Job") here are my personal tips:  

6 Tips For Getting The Most Out of Your Writers Retreat

1. Alone or with writer friends? This depends on the friends and what you're working on.  If you're collaborating on a project, then a few days away together works perfectly. But when you go on writer's retreat with a friend or friends, make sure to establish work time and socializing time and to stick to your mutual agreement. If you do go in a small group, respect the other residents (outside of your group). Unless you've reserved every single room, it's not your group's exclusive space. 

2. Writing materials: Pack what you will need (laptop, charger, thumb drive, printed manuscript with hand-edits, audio interviews, books, research notes). But leave yourself open to new possibilities, new sides of yourself. Bring a few paper notebooks and pens. Once you settle into this slower, complete-immersion space and pace, you may want to mix it up and try new writing tools and approaches.

3. Food: Unless the place includes a meal plan, pack some easy-cook or easily defrosted or ready-to-eat meals. Yes, it's fun to join in communal writer dinners. But you're really here to work, not perfect new recipes or waste time driving around looking for local restaurants. A must have: One ready-to-eat meal for that arrival day or night when you'll probably be travel weary and just getting unpacked and used to the vibe. 

4. Be open to new experiences, new people, a new way of being and writing: Especially if this is your first retreat, and especially if you're used to writing on the fly or snagging time in between parental or other family duties, the solitude may take some adjustment time. Be ready for that. Allow yourself at least one day to settle in. Resist the urge to call home and check in. Ditto for social media and email. And if you must check in at home, assign yourself one check-in time each day.  

5. Set a goal and have a plan: Yes, I know I said you have to leave yourself open and go with the flow.  But with all this unfettered, unpunctuated time stretching ahead, make sure you don't just waste these precious hours or days. Set yourself some goals. Have a loose plan for what you will accomplish by retreat's end.  

6. This is not like a professional conference: If you work a second, non-writing day job (and which of us doesn't?), expect a retreat to be very different from a professional conference.  For one thing, it's unstructured, non-instructional time, without breakout sessions or round tables or focus groups.  And for another, it's all about respecting your own and your fellow writers' space and solitude and silence. Although you may have fascinating or fun chats, the primary focus is on working, not NETworking. 

Are you extra or less productive when you write away from home or go on writers retreats? If extra productive, share you personal tips. If less productive, what does work for you?

Writers, Learn Lots from a Wind Chime

windchime
windchime

"Where did we get that new wind chime? I asked my husband. We had just brewed some Saturday morning coffee, so my brain was still in sludge mode.

Sitting there on our back deck, he peered over his coffee mug at me. "You-bought-it," he said.

"No I didn't."

 "Remember?" He said, using that sloooow,  nursing-home voice. You gave it to me as a gift? Two Christmases ago?" 

"Not that wind chime," I said.

"You said you found it at an art show in Florida."

"But that wind chime was twice this size. And it had those long, beautiful strips of turquoise stained glass."

"The stained glass broke off last winter" he said.  "It's been gone a long time."

Finally awake, I studied our broken wind chime. For the first time since I had swaddled it in my socks and stuffed it in my airport carry-on bag, I finally saw this remaining, plainer part with its clear and deep blue sea glass.  

Writers, let's call this the parable of the wind chime. And let's remember the parable of the wind chime each time we are (1) So dazzled by our own eloquence that we shush that inner editing voice that cries, "Cut! Cut!" and (2) Already clicking the "send" button, even though we know that our current draft needs one more read and edit.

In business, creative, expository and journalistic writing, less is always more. If you want to find the richest, truest part of your work, be ready to trim all that extra fat.

With the extra parts gone, you can see what's left and beautiful.

Like the remains of a broken wind chime.

Here are my three favorite editing techniques:

1. Email myself the manuscript. Then read and edit the email. This new format allows me to switch from the role of writer to reader.

2. Read the manuscript out loud. This is invaluable.

3. Save it in an online document storage site like "Dropbox," then read it on my phone. This miniature view brings me up close and personal with the text.

What are your favorite tips or techniques for editing your own work?

Writers: Oh, We of Little Faith

"Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase."

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The nuns at my convent secondary school said I'd lost it.

Faith, that is. I had lost my faith.

I only believed in things that could be proven in a science lab or in my math or grammar notebooks (We had paper notebooks back then; this all happened shortly after the sinking of the Lusitania.)

Episode 1: My first public crisis of faith went like this: There we were, us convent girls, all wearing our navy-blue uniforms and all pretending to listen to Sister S.'s latest speech on our "one, true faith."  I was 14. I politely interrupted to opine that, if Sister's hypothesis were true, then the entire faith/formal religion thing amounted to a rigged (and therefore illegal) horse race in which every bettor had an insider's tip for the favorite.

"But it's not, is it, Sister?" I said. "The other faiths (protestants, et al) are all backing their own horses, so we're all in a punter's race."

Sister S. argued back.

I counter-argued and trotted (ouch! sorry!) out more horse-racing analogies to make this woman see.

She sputtered and spat and fought back tears. She said she would pray for me.

(Psst! If your eyes are glazing over already, or if you've gone back to reading your daily racing pages, then skip this next episode of "Convent Kid Goes to Hell." I'll pray for you).

Episode 2: Two years later, we were all studying for our final exams and (hopefully) university. One day, Sister G., a younger nun, announced that advanced biology and French grammar and mathematical theorems were all fine for the mind, but we also needed to feed our young souls.

So Sister G. arrived with this box of religious books. They had book jackets with celestial sunrises and petrified martyrs gazing sky-ward. We could pick what we wanted, so of course I chose an extra big edition of the four gospels because it was hefty enough to camouflage my own latest creed: a steamy paperback novel.

Pant. Swoon. Now, this was the best religion class yet.

Until that day when Sister G. hauled me up in front of the class and held up my clandestine paperback filth as Exhibit A of what happens to girls who lose their faith.   I was, she said, "rapidly heading toward atheism."  So she said she'd pray for me, too.

Between then and now,  I've been a student and a teacher and a waitress and a dishwasher and a secretary and a professor and an editor.

Oh, and I moved across the sea to America, where my faith never returned. My faith done gone.

In America, I don't leave home without my GPS.  Every morning before work, I check my bag for my wallet, my phone, my lunch and water bottle. I often check twice.

At work I need written assurances of projected finish dates and what the project will look like.  I would never do one of those executive retreat thing-ys where you pitch yourself off a mountain ledge in the belief that your colleague will catch you.

Not me.

I only believe in what I see. In what I've been promised or contracted or what I can behold.

But then ...

Just before Christmas 2011, I started my third novel. So far, it's a crossover novel with a young adult main character but some fairly adult themes.  Beyond the main characters and the initial set-up, I have no clue what will actually happen. And worse, I cannot cast my mind forward 300 pages to envision a page that pronounces, "THE END."

As writers, are there ever any promises?  Is there ever a GPS or Godly voice announcing, "Destination on the right." Heck, most of us don't know where our story will end or if it will end or if this current draft will be the draft or if it will all just end up as kindling or kitty litter.

Writing is the ultimate test of personal faith. It presents many crisis of faith, like when the back-story becomes the front story. Like when the main character pouts and stalls and regresses to baby talk again. Like when the phone rings. The sink is full of dishes. Like when work is so busy you just about keep it all together.

Faith is damn hard.  And yet, to not believe, to not have faith is to not write.  It's to declare yourself as a permanent non-runner in every race.

And hell, we can't do that.

Joppa Flats
Joppa Flats

Today I abandoned my writing to take a long walk. On my walk, I stopped to  listen to the wind in the marsh grasses and how the incoming tide makes the ice snap and pop.   As I watched the winter sky out over Plum Island, I needed to believe.

So I kept walking and thinking and kept asking that little brat-character o' mine to reveal her true self.

She hasn't. Yet.

But she will.

Do women lose their writer's faith more easily than men? Or is it about equal between the genders?  How do you keep believing in yourself and your project?

A More Palatable Sandwich--Writing, Parenting and Elder Care

This week, I have the great pleasure of welcoming Katherine Hauswirth, a working mother and professional writer from Connecticut. Katherine is the author of Harriet’s Voice: A Writing Mother’s Journey, available through amazon.com or offthebookshelf.com.  As well as being a working mother, she writes prose and poetry, including a recent poem at Chronogram and guest columns on books at BiblioBuffet.com.  Lucky for us,  Katherine agreed to be one of the profiled authors in "Writer with a Day Job."  Now, she has graciously agreed to write on her expereience of being a member of the "sandwich generation"--those of us who are caring for our kids and our aging parents. Yes, all this, and writing, too. Welcome Katherine. 

Sandwich
Sandwich

Let’s say, hypothetically, that you find yourself a member of the “sandwich generation.”Or maybe not so hypothetically—a study sponsored by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics that focused solely on women in their 50s and 60s found that up to one third of those in this age group are simultaneously caring for parents and children. The study was narrow. I know I’m not the only one in my 40-something circle affected by these dueling needs, and that includes men also encountering this challenge.

As medical advances continue to stretch the human lifespan and allow for delayed entry into parenthood, more and more adults find themselves caring for parents while trying to do at least as good a job parenting their own children. This might feel somewhat more manageable if a job and/or a significant other weren’t also in the mix. Add to this a desire to pursue creative dreams, and life becomes a super generous and quite complicated sandwich, almost too big to get your mouth around.

So what to do? Well, I learned two essentials while working in psychiatry, and they’ve been reinforced by my own experience as a working mom with an elderly mother who needs more and more care. The first: seeking help, in whatever form you can get it, is so important. That help might be a friend who listens; a priest, rabbi, or worship community; the local social services department; a sibling; or a good book on the subject.

The second essential is that outlook is so critical. There’s a reason the “glass half full or glass half empty” analogy is used so often. Of course, most situations can’t be reduced to a simple “look on the bright side” prescription. But there’s a whole, quite decently validated school of cognitive therapy in which re-framing a negative perception can have a noticeable impact over time.

For writers, it can be worthwhile to “re-frame” that looming sandwich from a different angle.

To take the metaphor a step further, what are the condiments of life that might make that oversized sandwich a more enjoyable experience? Well, for one, your sandwich has just presented you with a wealth of material covering a good chunk of the spectrum of humanity, whether you write prose or poetry, fiction or fact. Tap into it, whether from the pragmatic or the emotional perspective.

If new material is the mustard, the need to become more highly organized might be the ketchup. Ever hear that expression, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it?” The fact that you are in high demand can help you learn to break tasks down into manageable steps and to recognize what things you simply can’t manage, which can make room for a very efficient system of triage. Yes, there’ll be times where writing takes a back seat, but you’ll also know when you take that precious time to write that you really deserve it and will be sure to use it wisely.

Finally, we come to the relish. Stress can be the ultimate crucible for learning what about what makes you tick and what saps your strength. Pay attention to the lessons you are learning about yourself, because they do translate to other areas. I find that I tend to get cold and clinical when trying to discuss a medical decision with my mom; I can be just as distant when doing a writing assignment on this type of situation. What a great breakthrough it will be, in both cases, to let my heart show more.

So, advice for the sandwich you might find on your plate? Sit back, chew slowly, watch out for random toothpicks, and savor the opportunity.

How do you deal with stress--at work, at home or under writing deadline?

Our Just Desserts (Psst! No Calories)


9964-1009-freelinked
9964-1009-freelinked

When I published “Writer with a Day Job” (Writers Digest Books, 2011), I hoped that it would instigate us day-job writers to get chatting and sharing our strategies for balancing work with writing. Or I thought that some readers might comment on the book’s tutorials on the actual craft of writing narrative.

These have happened. But two weeks ago, one reader-feedback  really stopped me in my tracks. It was a note from a woman who said that her personal takeaway from the book was that we deserve to write. Like many of us, this woman is balancing a job, a family and some additional responsibilities for her extended family.

Here’s an excerpt from her very kind email:  

“Sometimes it's hard to justify writing even an hour a day when my job demands so much of me, and when the people I love need me so much. Your approach has helped me make an important shift: recognizing that it's writing that makes me a better person,  that this feeds everything else.”

For years and years (and even still), this “deserving” issue was the biggest block to my own writing.

In 1992, amidst an interstate move and  a few bad financial hits,  I took the first steps toward my lifelong dream of being a writer. I signed up for a master’s program at a college in our new town—a program I financed through a patchwork of cash `n carry jobs, credit cards, a research assistantship and a very large dollop of naiveté.

Three months before this, my husband and I had packed our things into a Ryder truck and rented our house (it wouldn't sell) and moved to this place where he accepted a lower-level position at his old company. It was this or take a company pink slip. I worked as a waitress and as a front desk clerk and as a college administrative assistant. Once or twice a week, I left that day's particular job and gobbled down an after-work sandwich en route to my graduate classroom where, supposedly, I would enter the writing life.

But in that classroom or, later, scribbling in a bagel shop on my lunch hour,  I believed that a girl like me—a new immigrant, a working wife, the child of working class parents—was an imposter.  Creative writing was for the believers. The rich. The leisured. The erudite.  Creative writing was for those who didn’t lie awake at night worrying about the mortgage, the in-laws or the credit cards.

Even when I did write or publish, I wrote with a certain timidity.  As I sat there scribbling in strip mall cafes, or when I researched my papers in the college library, I envisioned a grand American literate—an exclusive club of scribes who held the secret code to La Vie des Ecrivans. I would never be a member. I would never deserve it.

What a bloody waste.

Now that I’m middle aged, now that I’ve cleared my credit cards, I know that writing is as much about believing as it is about doing.  Above all, it’s about believing that writing is something that you deserve to do.

What about you? Do you believe, deeply, that you deserve the personal time out that it takes to write?  Do women come to believe this more easily than men?

photo credit: www.freewebphoto.com

Writer with a Day Job - Welcome

Z8079 WriterDayJob
Z8079 WriterDayJob

Creative Writing: You want the Side Salad with That?

I got the idea for the book,  "Writer with a Day Job" while sitting outside my office building.  This was the corporate building (I have since switched jobs) where I made my living, to which I commuted five days per week.

I was sitting on the stone steps at the back of the building, eating a lunchtime salad and trying very hard not to dribble the balsamic vinaigrette dressing onto the typescript pages I was editing.  That day's lunchtime writing assignment: to read and edit a creative nonfiction essay about pet ownership.  Now that I think about it,  I never finished that essay--so don't look for it in the New Yorker.

corporate office building
corporate office building

So there I was, eating, reading, writing--only glancing up from my manuscript to check my watch for when it was time to go back in through those glass doors and back to my cubicle and my other, paid job.

I had about 40 minutes in which to edit and re-draft my essay. As a lifelong procrastinator who tends to draft in my head and then write things just before submission date,I knew just how much work you can cram into 40 minutes.

There's nothing like a sunny spring day in New England to bring the cubicle corporatoids skittering into the daylight. So as I sat there reading and editing,  the rest of the office crowd emerged blinking into the sunlight to mill around that nondescript courtyard. They gossiped, paced or gabbled on their cell phones.

The truth? I wanted to tell them to shut it. But then, this wasn't my personal writing studio.  So actually, I was the one who had to shut out all those voices and distractions.

And then I had a vision. No, seriously. And please don't summon the whacko police--at least not yet. But in my mind's eye, I saw all of us day job writers across America--thousands of us sitting in bagel shops or huddled in doorways or sitting in our cars with our iPods, trying to jam in a little bit of writing while waiting for the kids to get out of soccer practice or while sitting in the dentist's waiting room.  Mine wasn't the Hollywood vision of a creative writer. But it was the authentic, 21st-century version.

Then I thought of all the writing students who have attended my writing classes and workshops for adult learners. Nurses. Accountants. Marketers. Dads. Moms. Doctors. Lawyers. Carpenters.   Except for a very lucky or a bestseller few,  most of us writers are holding down a day job while also writing. We're walking that tightrope between creating art and paying the rent.

So the book, "Writer with a Day Job" was born.

I took another bite of my salad and turned over my typescript page and began to scribble some initial ideas for the book.

For the next few weeks, at home or on the commute, I had more ideas for the book.

But listen,  ideas are one thing. Translating those  ideas into useful, in-the-trenches guidelines is another process. Could my own experiences in the craft and process of writing be useful to other writers?

You be the judge.

Writers Digest Books published "Writer with a Day Job" in June 2011. As well as guidelines, inspiration and tutorials, the book includes interviews with 20 creative writers from across the country. These are novelists, essayists, memoirists and poets who have or currently balance work, parenting and writing.

Since the book's publication date, other writers--all of whom are balancing work, family and creativity--have  emailed with their comments and questions.

And now ... Ta! Da! Le blog, "Writer with a Day Job."

Let's make this our virtual salon.

As I add new posts and guest posts, I invite you to comment. I invite you to  share your own experiences,  successes and ... ahem ... challenges in finding balance between your writing and your working lives.

Meanwhile, here's an excerpt from "Writer  with a Day Job." Yes, wouldn't you know it? It's about writing on your lunch hour.

Copyright 2011-2014 Aine Greaney
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