Aine Greaney

Author

Boston author and essayist from Ireland

Teaching Creative Writing Workshops: 8 Ways To Prepare and Plan

This weekend I got to do one of my favorite things:  draft a set of curriculum for an eight-week creative writing class that I hope to facilitate this summer. 

There's nothing more thrilling than rummaging through my Evernote files and bookshelves to find just that right article or essay or video clip that will, I hope, inspire a group of writers.  

Leading a writing workshop is a delicate balance of pedagogy, grace, humanity, inclusion and authority. It also helps to have a sense of humor. 

I've been designing and leading writing workshops for over 20 years now.  I've taught at libraries, universities, arts centers, assisted living facilities, schools and writers conferences. Still, I would never call myself an old pro who knows it all--far from it.

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Each opportunity and each group of participant writers holds the promise of learning new ways to engage and inspire.    As I put the finishing touches on this summer one, I sure hope that's true and that my preparation will pay off.  

New to teaching or presenting? Here are my 8 Steps To Prepare For A Creative Writing Workshop 

1. Narrow your topic:   "We want to offer a writing class." Sometimes, the host or events person calls with just this request. It's a great request, but it's up to you to ask and get specifics about the projected audience, its demographics, and, if possible, nudge him or her toward letting you come up with a more specific workshop topic or title.  

For example, a workshop on writing short fiction will appeal to an entirely different audience to a session on, say, travel writing. Equally, an active retirement group may want a different type of session from a group of teens--or not. But you must ask. 

2. Check out the venue:  I learned this once when I traveled overseas to teach a day-long workshop in a building that was (surprise!) still under reconstruction. The builders' jack hammers outside meant having to keep the windows closed. And the lack of drinking water and a working toilet eclipsed anything we had to share or say about creative writing.

Nothing kills student participation more than physical discomforts, including rooms that are cold, musty, lack windows, enough space or nearby bathrooms. Ask questions. Go on the organization's website. If needed, ask to visit the venue so you can check it out and actually visualize your workshop taking place in that room.  

3. Establish who's boss:   O.K., just one more war storyOnce, a woman hired me to facilitate a three-day summer conference retreat in a gorgeous mountain setting.  Fantastic, right?  Um ... Two hours into the event, I discovered that this woman couldn't quite decide who was actually leading--her or me. The students were confused and distracted and it was hard to get the writing karma back. Yes, writing workshops are very democratic and participatory, but someone needs to lead. 

If your potential host plans on attending the actual sessions, establish if it's going to be as a participant, a co-teacher, a pop-in observer or as a supervisor of your work.   Then, depending on the response, accept or decline this teaching opportunity.

4. Prepare. Prepare. Prepare:  Haven't we all plunked down our money for a  training or workshop in which the facilitator was just coasting or fudging? Participants deserve to get their money's worth and get the most out of these few hours or days. So it's important to really prepare the content, plan the pacing, the writing prompts, the break times, the handouts  and other details.  Always have an alternate set of prompts in case the group energy lags or dynamics change. 

5. Ask about the technology: If you're going to use  video clips, pod casts or presentation software (like PowerPoint or Prezi), establish your future venue's internet capabilities. As well as the resident laptop setup, bring your own and backup everything on a thumb drive.  If at all possible, request to do a test run--in the same room you will be  using for the actual workshop--and make sure the tech person will be onsite or on call on the day of the event. 

6. Talk money: Don't believe someone who tells you that facilitating this retreat or workshop will look great on your C.V.,  will land you a literary agent or give you a free lunch or dinner.  The potential event or conference may, indeed, yield one or all of these, but none of them is a valid reason to donate your talent and time.

Ask for a suitable fee. Ask for mileage or transportation support. As a writer, you should be a good literary citizen and donate your time. But only to organizations you actually choose.   

7. Learn how to teach: Many writers' events and conferences hire big-name authors as a way to fill the seats and balance the budget.  Often, these rock star authors turn out to also be a rock star teachers. But then, there are those who do not, who cannot teach. 

Before I was a writer, I was trained and educated as a teacher. But if you've never stood in front of a group before, get  online and learn the basics of training and group facilitation. Your students will thank you, and you may get invited back for a repeat gig. 

8. Ask about marketing--plus the minimum and maximum enrollment:  Depending on the topic and venue, there's a magic number for writing workshops. For a fully participatory workshop with lots of peer sharing and review, 9-12 works well. Fifteen is do-able. Anything beyond that switches the dynamics and begins to morph into a lecture style. Too few students, and it's hard to generate dialog and creative energy. Too many? Your participants can feel crunched for time and air space.  

Ask about the maximum numbers of attendees and how the venue plans to post  and advertise the workshop event to the public. Also make sure you view and approve how you are posted as the facilitator. 

As a workshop participant, what would you like to see from facilitators? Or as an instructor, share your tips with us. Write in the comments below. 

 

 

Valentines Day Essays

I've never been a big holiday person. There have been years when I wish Christmas would go away, when I wanted to keep my birthday secret, and when I spent Thanksgiving just walking on the beach. And please, don't get me started on Saint Patrick's Day.

Maybe I'm just rebelling against the fact that, in Retail Land, USA, we hardly get to clean up after one holiday when the next one is already out there, displayed in all its mercenary splendor. 

So I'm not quite sure why I've written and published four pieces about Valentine's Day.

Before our hearts-and-flowers holiday is over for 2015, I have collected them here in one spot--if for no other reason than it's fun to see how our writing voices change from year to year and from genre to genre. 

The Boston Globe Magazine: "Forget The Hearts and Flowers: It's The Un-glamorous Gestures That Count." 

Books by Women: "10 Ways To Love A Writer: On Valentine's Day and Forever"

Books by Women: "Writing: A Love Letter"

The Manifest-Station (today!) "Valentine's Day: My Teachable, Preachable Holiday"

Feel free to  post links (below) to your favorite holiday-themed  writing. Or pick your favorite from among the above. 

A Giveaway of My Short Story To Celebrate Short Fiction Day

As the shortest day of the year, December 21 has been designated "Celebrate Short Fiction Day" by Pixel Hall Press.

Lucky for me, it's also release day for my latest short fiction ebook, "La Belle Femme."  

A contemporary story set in Ireland, "La Belle Femme" is now downloadable to all e-readers from Barns and Noble, and will be available from Amazon tomorrow, December 22.

Read more about the work and how the idea for this story dates all the way back to 1983. 

Celebrate Short Fiction Giveaway

To celebrate all you short fiction readers out there, I am giving away a copy of "La Belle Femme" to the correct respondent of this simple quiz (below) on contemporary Irish women writers. 

To enter, simply write your correct response in the comments section below. If there's more than one correct answer (short fiction lovers tend to be really clever and well read), I will enter the names in random.org. 

Le Quiz: One of these 6 contemporary women authors is not Irish born. Who? Enter the correct name by 1 p.m.. December 27, 2014. 

Claire Keegan

Nuala Ni Chronchuir

Jennifer Johnston

Anne Enright

Maggie O'Farrell

Edna O'Brien

Enter the correct response in the comments below. We will choose and announce a winner by 1 p.m. on December 27.

 

 

 

Keep a Writing Journal. Live Deliberately

Today was an ordinary day.   I scanned the headlines. I ate some oatmeal. I wrote part of an essay. I responded to emails.

In between these tasks, I also finished one of my journals. I penned the last line of the last page and then, I flipped back to Page 1. 

The first entry was dated May 10, Mother's Day 2014.  My last entry dates from November 17 (today). So between the covers of this book are six months' worth of thoughts, questions, musings and arguments. 

This particular journal ending set me thinking about the ephemera of our own lives. Yes, my past six months have been recorded--maybe even immortalized--in my pages. But those days and weeks are still gone.  

I had to ask myself: If it weren't for these pages, how many or how much of the past two seasons would I actually remember? What could I call up for instant replay? How well could I  evoke the sounds or feelings or atmosphere of one, ordinary moment? 

 Middle age has become a bullet train ride through a speeding and disappearing landscape, in which everything is already out of eye view before I've had a chance to sit up and see the details. 

What did I do on the Fourth of July (didn't it rain)?  How many of the past summer weekends did I spend at the beach?  Or, now  that our garden is rimed with morning frost, why can't I close my eyes and re-feel the blistering heat of August?

Henry David Thoreau said that he went to the woods because he "wished to live deliberately.' I love this notion of slowing and silencing time, setting it on slow-motion so that we can relish and remember. 

But few of us can actually go to live in a rustic cabin on or near Walden Pond. In these chill November days, I wouldn't want to. 

The best I can do is to buy (or take from hotels) a set of cheap pens and department store journals that let me hold and behold time. Without them, the past 197 days might be gone altogether.  

I closed my completed journal and crossed to the bookshelves to stow it there among all the others. No, not "all;" there are boxes in the basement.  From the bookshelf I took out a new, blank journal (I buy and hoard them) and set in on my desk where it sits now, ready and waiting for tomorrow'. 

Meanwhile, life ticks on. 

 

When The Writing Life Turns Scary (Plus Some Fixes)

Vampires?  Witches?  Ghouls? Yes, they're Halloween scary (maybe), but they've got nothing on our spookiest writer moments.    

What scares you as a writer?

What scares you as a writer?

Here are the three aspects of the writing life that can send us screeching and cowering under our bed covers.  I'm also including some suggested fixes. 

1.  Eeeek! The Blank Screen, aka, Writers Block 

You wake up with this idea that's so clever that you skip breakfast and grab a quick coffee on your way to your writing desk. Then you type furiously while visions of that Pulitzer dance in your head. You stop. You re-read.  You want to puke.  You delete it all and now you're plain stumped for what--if anything--to write. 

Or you’re under a big, hairy deadline, but then, 12 hours before submission time,  your brain circuits all fizzle and blow. Now you can't speak, let alone write. Oh. Hell.

Fixes:  Get outside and take a walk or a run. Don't worry. The writer's pity party will still be in full swing when you return.  When you get back, pick up your hand-writing journal to tease out what’s stalling you in this project. Or, if you’re not under deadline, take a break from this freakish project to work on a different one—preferably in a different genre.   

 2.       Bwaaa! Haa! Haaa! The Rejection Letter

 You drafted, re-drafted, edited, polished (and polished). Then, you submitted that short story or essay to that well researched and apparently perfect market.  You followed their submission guidelines. Your piece is within the required word count.    And now, here in your email in-box is one of those, “This-didn’t-work-for-us” notes. Or worse, there's a confusing or snarky missive that reveals that your work never got read in the first place. 

Fixes: First, exorcise (as in, “cast out thy demons”) all self-blame or -flagellation. If you truly worked hard on your submitted piece, then remember that all writing and reading is subjective. I mean, how many New York Times bestsellers have you read that you honestly, truly loved (in my case, not many)?  This rejection may have little or nothing to do with the quality of this piece. It certainly is not an indictment of you as a writer. If the editor was kind enough to offer suggestions, use them. The best cure for writer’s rejection? Review your piece, fix any boo-boos and, within 24 hours, submit it to a new market.  

3.    Help! "I’m About To Turn (insert milestone birthday), And Now It's Too Late!" Today’s workplaces demand more and more of us, and our 24/7, hyper-connected lifestyle doesn't help. In or beyond the workplace, it seems like there’s always someone who needs you. You’re facing down a milestone birthday and here's that inner voice telling you that  life has whizzed by, and so has your dream of being a writer. 

 Fixes:  Switch your own way of thinking.   Taking time out to write does not mean that you are reneging on your work or family responsibilities. Writing means taking care of your own wellness to make you a better employee, a better parent, a better caregiver. Look at your entire week. Find some spots in there for quick, incidental writing opportunities.  Insert those days and times into your appointment calendar. Early mornings?  Lunch hours? Café on the way home from work?  Turn off the T.V. at night. If it really matters to you, make a plan and start tomorrow.   

What are the scariest parts of writing for you? Write them in the comments below. 

Page to Stage: Reading A Memoir Out Loud

Before I submitted it to my literary agent, I re-drafted and edited the pages of my memoir, WHAT BROUGHT YOU HERE: LEAVING MY OWN COUNTRY TO FIND MY OWN LIFE at least 20 times. 

Last March, I toted my printed manuscript--plus a bunch of sticky notes--to a Florida beach where I lounged under the tropical rays while giving the book its final copy edit and spit polish.

Then, two weeks ago, I was invited to participate in a literary panel at "The Irish in Massachusetts"  conference co-hosted by the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and Queen University, Belfast. 

 UMassLowell is one of the campuses within our state university system, and Lowell is a former mill city that's often credited as the cradle of the American industrial revolution.

What a treat to read and discuss Irish American literature in a city that's a hotbed of multicultural immigrant stories--old and new, told and untold, sad and happy.  

Thematic fit aside, I decided to read an excerpt from the memoir because I believed that there would be few or no surprises, that I could predict the audience reaction.  

Click on the photo to hear an excerpt from the reading. 

Click on the photo to hear an excerpt from the reading. 

Well ... Duh. That writer control-freak thing only goes so far.  Collectively or individually, a listening audience will decide for themselves the parts of our writing that they deem funny, sad or controversial.  

As I stood there at the lectern at Lowell, my own story sounded different to me. 

Dang it. Despite all my love and attention, that cheeky little manuscript had gone and taken on a life of its own.  

Reminder to self: Long before they got shelved in mega bookstores or downloaded to Kindles, our stories were and are an oral art.  

From one teller to the next, from page to stage, a story always mutates.

That's how stories breathe. And live.

 

 

 

 

A Conversation With Nancy Christie, Author, "Traveling Left of Center"

Today I'm delighted to welcome fellow author and short-story writer, Nancy Christie.

Traveling Left of Center and Other Stories (Pixel Hall Press, 2014)

Traveling Left of Center and Other Stories (Pixel Hall Press, 2014)

Nancy's collection of short stories, "Traveling Left of Center and Other Stories" has recently been released from Pixel Hall Press

Individually and collectively, Nancy's stories speak to our flawed humanity and delightful individuality.

Great writing--and stories that feature dreaming and dream wisdom--makes this collection all the more readable and memorable. 

You can learn more about Nancy at her website, blog, Google+ or on Twitter

Q. Nancy, the characters in the stories all seem a little (in some case, a lot!) wounded or vulnerable. What draws you to write about these types of characters?

I’m not entirely sure. It’s not like I set out to write stories about odd, eccentric or unstable people. It’s just, for some reason, I am drawn to those types of people—perhaps it’s one of those “There, but for the grace of God” things.

My fiction—or at least, my short fiction—tends to be about people who are damaged in some way: by what they have done to themselves or by what was done to them, by what they have received, what they gave up, or what was taken from them. They are, for the most part, struggling to navigate through dangerous waters. Some survive and move forward toward land, some are just treading water, and some don’t even know that they have lost the battle and are, even now, drowning.

I feel sorry for those people, wish I could do something for them, and perhaps, in the writing of their stories, that is what I am doing. Because somewhere out there, there is a real person who is held in thrall by his or her obsessions, who is controlled by past or present circumstances, who wants to live a happy, normal, balanced life but finds that the tightrope of life vibrates too much and maintaining equilibrium is but a dream.

“Dream”—and there it is again. The idea of what we want and what we have. For some of us—perhaps for most of us—the former is the dream and the latter is the reality and never the twain shall meet.

Q. Dreams and dreaming figure into several of your stories—“Misconnections” and “Beautiful Dreamer,” to name two. Did you “dream” these stories? And what kind of dream history do you have?

Actually, ever since I was little, I have been an active dreamer. The description of her children’s nocturnal activities in “Misconnections” is taken from my own life. I was (and, when I am very tired or stressed, still am) a sleepwalker and sleep-talker, and prone to dreams that are so real that, when I wake up, I’m not entirely sure if it was a dream or not! And sometimes, the images in the dreams do end up being part of a story. As a matter of fact, the dream image the character has of the little child in “Misconnections” came from one of my own dreams! Unfortunately, I am unable to dream on command—if I could, I would have lots more stories!

Q. Where did the idea of the cover art for TRAVELING LEFT OF CENTER come from?

From the very beginning—even before I knew it would be a book!—I had an image in mind for the book cover. The cover is a literal interpretation of each character’s metaphorical journey on the road of life. Some of them zig-zag across the center line only to pull back to the right side at the last moment, while others cross once and never make it back in time. And then, there are the few who are merrily driving right down the center, every now and then drifting first to the left and then to the right, blissfully unaware that they are courting disaster. When I shared the concept with my publisher, it took only a few tweaks before we had the “ah hah!” moment and said “This is it!” and after a few revisions, we successfully “birthed” this book cover!

Q. What was your “writer dream”—your goal— when you began to write? Has it changed over the years?

I don’t think I had a dream. Certainly, I never pictured myself holding a book with my name on it. Writing is such a natural part of me that I never thought about it as an occupation or a goal, any more than I would think about breathing as a profession. It was just something I did.

Of course now, with two books—TRAVELING LEFT OF CENTER and my non-fiction book, THE GIFTS OF CHANGE— in print and two short stories as e-books plus others that have been published in literary journals, I do have a dream or two. Great reviews in The Times. Accolades from well-known literary fiction writers. An award or two to stick somewhere on my bookshelf—next to about a dozen foreign translations of my collection!

Or maybe my accountant telling me that my royalties have pushed me into a different income bracket!

Q. What does writing fiction bring into your life?

It is less a question of writing fiction as recounting what my characters choose to tell me. I am their conduit, their confidante; I wait for their stories and then do my best to put them in written form so others can understand what they have done, what they have experienced and why they are the way they are.

Writing fiction gives me the freedom to imagine certain circumstances and scenarios, and then watch my characters cope with them. Of course, that freedom comes at a price—the cost being an inability to let go of the characters, to close the book on them, so to speak. They become real to me and so, years after I have written about them, I grieve for lonely, lost Annabelle, for Connie who gives to the children as a way of coping with her empty life, for Sara’s mother, who longs to turn back the clock and hold her daughter once again.

In a sense, fiction is also my coping strategy. Like most people, I have had my share of pain and loss, disappointment and heartbreak. Many times, I will use fiction as a way to heal. The stories, while not necessarily mirroring my own experiences, do explore the attendant emotions. I watch from a distance, as my characters deal with their own private anguish, and little by little come closer, until eventually, I can allow myself to face my own. Their grief and pain becomes mine—we share, and in that sharing, I can move on.

Q. What stimulates your creativity or serves as a writing inspiration?

I wish I knew what triggers my writing! Then I would make sure I had more of it! Probably dialogue—most of my stories start with conversations—between two people or internal ones—so probably a good round of eavesdropping can really start the mind running.

Do you have a theme you return to time and again?

Probably change. I mean, that is the constant we all face, isn’t it? We are only fooling ourselves if we think we can control everything that happens to us. So, that being the case, what do we do? How do we handle change—happy change, sad change, confusing change? That’s the predicament my characters find themselves in.

Conversely, what creates a major writer’s block for you?

Thinking about what other writers—writers younger than me!—have accomplished. Worrying that some reviewer will consider my fiction amateurish or boring. Even getting good reviews scares me a bit—they are so complimentary that I start wondering if they were talking about some other Nancy Christie who wrote some other really great book!

Q. Based on your own experience, what tips do you have for authors who are preparing for their “maiden voyage” on the sea of publication?

Know how to market, how to promote yourself. Get your website ready. Be available and accessible to the media and to bloggers who want to interview you. Know the writing business—which is not the same as being able to write.

Q. How do you define success as a writer? What makes you feel successful as a writer?

When someone reads a story I wrote and finds something in it that I hadn’t even realized I put there. It’s as though they uncovered some hidden piece of gold, some shiny jewel and told me about it. It becomes an interactive experience.

Q. Conversely, what makes you feel like a failure, and how do you combat that?

When I can’t write. I start to write and get stuck or can’t even get started. Then I am convinced that the last thing I wrote will be the last thing I write. It’s an ugly black hole and I have to crawl out of it.

Q. What is your idea of a perfect writing day?

No phone calls, No interruptions. The sound of the waves outside my window. Lots of coffee. And lots and lots of words pouring out of my head and onto the paper—the majority of which are half-way decent.

Q. What do you want your writer’s epitaph to be?

Just two words: “Fiction Writer”

 

Labor Day, Writing and Stephen King

Seven years ago, a student of mine recommended Stephen King's book, "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft."

I had never read a King novel, but I decided to give his book on writing a try.

When I got to that part about writing making you happy, I rolled my  eyes and muttered, "Yeah. Easy for him to say." 

I don't recall what incited that day's snark attack, but it's safe to say that I was either (a) wrestling with some piece of writing that wouldn't obey or (b) smarting from an editor's rejection or (c) so busy with work that I had limited or no time to write--hence, the grumpies.

I snapped out of it, and now, King's "get happy" line is one that I often use as a benediction before my creative writing workshops. It's one of those lines that I wish I had written first, or at minimum, I wish that King had used me as Exhibit A, as his writing-makes-you-happy poster child. 

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.

Mind you, the work-happiness equation is easier to define in its absence--when we know that it's our job that's making us frantic or factious or just plain sad. 

So hands up now, who among us has not  had one of those toxic jobs, those cubicle-bound incarcerations where Friday couldn't come fast enough? Oh, yes. You know the gigs--the stuff of "Dilbert" cartoons and T.V. sitcoms ("The Office") and those night dreams in which you're the perpetrator and your boss is the victim and ... well ... let's just say that Mr. King could never craft anything as gory or gratifying as your work-revenge dream. 

Now and again, when I'm rummaging through the basement for old snow boots or a lost kitchen gadget, I come across a box of my old journals. I can't resist. I open a random notebook and flick to a random page. For that set of journals dating from the early to the mid-`90s,  I'm  struck by how sad I was back then.  Beneath my handwritten words is a low-grade (and often overt) depression.  Other journal pages bristle with an anger that now, almost two decades later, makes me stop reading my own writing. 

Yes, there were parts of my then life--including genetics--that could have disposed me toward melancholia.   But it's hard to miss that one, glaring factor: A suffocating and very meaningless job. The second factor: Except for the odd scribble on my lunch hour, I wasn't writing. 

Compared to back then, my current life is pretty damn good. It's pretty darn happy. I have a fulfilling day job with smart and decent colleagues. Weekends and early mornings, I get out of bed to do what I love best: writing. 

So this Labor Day,  if your work makes you happy, raise your coffee cup in a toast to good work and colleagues who deserve you. 

But if you suspect that work is a contributing--or the--factor in your sadness or, worse, depression, then use this Labor Day to list some steps to  (a) Find new and different work or (b) Make your current job better, more tolerable, happier. 

Because Stephen King said so. 

What was your most miserable job? Or, what are your thoughts on writing and its contribution to personal happiness? Write in the comments below. 

Is Teaching Writing Better Than Actual Writing?

A few days ago, I would have had a very quick and definite response to the question above: Writing is my happier and better place.

Truth be told, I was on a bit of a reclusive kick, and ... well ... you know how that goes. The less you socialize, the less you want to get out there and socialize.

Then, this weekend, I traveled to New York City for a three-day conference by Writers Digest. I was in good company. Other presenters included Harlan Coben, Jacqueline Mitchard and Dani Shapiro. The event also included panels and presentations by agents, editors, and lots of fellow writers. 

At the Writers Digest Conference 2014 in New York

At the Writers Digest Conference 2014 in New York

We had about 600+ attendees, and the event was a nice mix of large-group keynotes, discussion panels and breakout sessions. Of course, we managed to get some socializing in there, too. 

My two breakout sessions were on editing your work for publication (all genres) and how to write scenes for fiction (novels, short stories, micro fiction) and non-fiction (memoir, personal essay) pieces. 

Today, after a long train journey and two high-energy sessions, I find myself back in Massachusetts and already missing the energy and buzz of the conference and mid-town Manhattan. It's not an exaggeration to say that I had wonderful participants who, though each room was large and full, managed to engage with the topic and with each other in a way I've rarely seen before.

We all know that writing is a solitary kind of gig. We all know--or should--that we writers spend a little too much time inside our own heads. So the opportunity to get out there to present and talk writing with other authors is always a thrill.  

Thank you to all who participated.  I enjoyed meeting every one of you, and especially enjoyed hearing your quick writing pieces from our (imaginary) beach scenes. 

As a convenience for the participants, I have posted the session slides at Slideshare (see the links below). You will notice that each set of slides includes the sublinks (3 in all) to the short movie clips we viewed during the sessions. 

I hope you enjoy.

And remember what Stephen King told us: Writing is about getting happy. 

So whether you're out there discussing writing or hiding out in your writing room, be happy.

 

"A Smooth, Clean Finish: Editing Your Work for Publication" slides are here

"Darling, You're Making a Scene" slides are here.

A list of my other workshop topics are at my website

Short Stories: A Secret Per Day

My Irish convent school wasn't like anything you'd read about in a Dickens novel, and it was certainly more humane than James Joyce's depictions of his own school in "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." 

Still, at  least by today's standards, our school could hardly be called progressive. And, in terms of our curricular offerings and world-view, it was as limited and sexist as most small-town girls' schools were in the 1970s. 

Except for my English and French classes. 

Oh, the English and French classes were rigid, too. They had to be.   In Ireland, we study for and take three weeks' worth of grueling school-exit examinations (all in extended response essays) that determine whether or not we get into university.  

So we had Dickens and Twain and Shakespeare.  We had Simeon and Maupassant and lots of grammar rules.

We also read and critiqued an anthology of literary short stories by British and Irish authors like HG Wells and Frank O'Connor.  And this is where things got interesting.  This is where, at age 13, I fell madly in love. 

Even back then, I think I sensed that short stories were the literary counterpart of an old-masters painting. The stories had color, symmetry and texture. And, like fine paintings, each short story held its own linguistic and dramatic secrets. The only way to unearth those secrets was to read one story at a time, and then, months later, read the story again. 

Since my school days, I've read many short story collections and anthologies, many of which still sit on my American bookshelves. Some collections hail from a particular place or phase of my own life. When I sit down to re-read a beloved story, it reveals a new set of secrets. 

I'm a one-story-a-day woman.  Why? Because when we indulge in something so rich and textured, when we're excavating a set of beautiful secrets, we want to savor only that one story.  We want to let that particular tale settle before turning the page for the next one. 

This Friday, June 20, my short story, "Snow," set in a small town in Ireland, will be released by Pixel Hall Press as a single e-story, down-loadable via all e-readers, including Kindle. 

"Snow," my new e-short story from Pixel Hall Press

"Snow," my new e-short story from Pixel Hall Press

Every writer is glad to be published. I am especially thrilled that my story is being released by a publisher who "gets" the perennial appeal of short fiction and who feels, as I do, that some stories are best enjoyed as a standalone treat. 

If you would like to have me visit your book club to discuss "Snow" and its many secrets (in person or by Skype), feel free to email me. I promise: This lush, provocative story will get your group talking. 

What short stories do you read and re-read? 


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? 

 

Win A Free EBook. Take This Mother's Day Quiz

Love Irish fiction?  To celebrate Mother's Day, I will send a pre-publication copy of my upcoming short story, "Snow" (Pixel Hall Press, June 20) to the reader who identifies the 4 fictional Irish mothers listed below. 

"Snow," My new e-short story from Pixel Hall Press

"Snow," My new e-short story from Pixel Hall Press

In which novel or story do these Irish mothers appear?  In the comments, leave you list and your email with your answer(s). The person with the most correct answers wins. All comments must be received by 5 p.m. EST Monday, May 12, 2014

If more than one respondent has the same number of correct answers, the names will be entered into random.com to choose a winner.  

1. Whiskers
2. Annabel Hogan
3. Agnes Brown
4. Mrs. Mooney

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?

Let's Celebrate! It's a Virtual Book Cover Reveal Party

Today I'm delighted to be among the bloggers hosting Nancy Christie's book cover reveal party. Read on to find out more about her upcoming e-book of literary fiction. 

LeftofCenter.jpg

About the Cover for TRAVELING LEFT OF CENTER

Choosing the artwork for TRAVELING LEFT OF CENTER was no simple thing. This collection represents the culmination of hopes and dreams, long hours of labor and even longer hours of doubt.

It was essential that the cover image conveyed the emotion of the stories and, at the same time, hinted at the mysteriousness of choice: why we do what we do, and what happens when our choices turn out to be less than wise. And when my publisher, Pixel Hall Press, presented me with this haunting painting, there was no question in my mind that it was the right one for the collection.

And to celebrate, I asked Aine Greaney, along with a few other select bloggers, to share in a virtual “cover reveal” party—and she was kind enough to agree.

In return, I promised to provide some background information about the image and the challenge of finding a visual representation of a story.

So here it is—the backstory about the cover for TRAVELING LEFT OF CENTER!

What does the cover represent?

If you think of life as a road, then as long as you stay in your own lane, so to speak, you have a good chance of reaching your destination. But if you cross the center line—because of inattention, confusion or deliberate action—then you run the risk of crashing.

Crashing into another “vehicle” and causing harm to one or both of you. Crashing into an immovable object and being grievously injured or possibly destroyed. Or, best case scenario for a bad situation, almost crashing and then, at the very last moment, pulling hard on the wheel and getting back to where you need to be. And then, after wiping your brow and taking a few deep breaths, doing your utmost to stay there.

The stories in TRAVELING LEFT OF CENTER depict those types of situations, from the close calls to the disastrous.

Sounds depressing.

Yes— and no. It’s true that not all the stories have happy endings—like life, sometimes things work out and sometimes they don’t.

But look closely at the image—follow the road through the trees to the farthest point. See the sunlight glancing through the limbs in the distance? Light—and hope. Darkness—yet with the promise of daylight.

Where did the idea of the image come from?

In the collection there is a lighthearted story entitled “Traveling Left of Center.” And when I was putting the collection together to shop it to agents and publishers and needed a title, that seemed to be so right, so perfect, that I couldn’t imagine any other name for it. Which, of course, then led to the image for the as-yet unpublished book.

Not being a visual person, I have never found it easy to imagine the cover for any of my books— from my first one, THE GIFTS OF CHANGE, to the last two short fiction e-books, ANNABELLE and ALICE IN WONDERLAND. You might say I am picture-challenged!

But in this case, I knew exactly what I wanted as the single unifying picture. As a matter fact, long ago I had even drawn (quite poorly, I might add) my version of the cover: a single lane highway and crossing it from right to left, a set of skid marks.

I shared the image concept with my publisher and after a few revisions (I can be a bit anal about type) we successfully “birthed” this book cover!

So what are the stories?

Ah, for that, you must wait, with bated breath, until August, when the book will be out in both print and digital format. But, in the meantime, if you must have a taste of TRAVELING, visit the Pixel Hall Press website where you will find excerpts of both ANNABELLE and ALICE IN WONDERLAND.

My thanks to those of you who came to the cover reveal party and Aine who made it happen! For more information and to stay on top of what’s happening with TRAVELING LEFT OF CENTER, follow me on Twitter at @NChristie_OH!

On Thanksgiving: What Immigrants Bring to Our Shores

This week, a local news reporter called me. He was doing a Thanksgiving-themed piece on people who had washed up here in our coastal New England town from other countries (a la pilgrims). He was looking for local expatriates or immigrants who had  "done well." This last qualifier made me think. Done well. 

I arranged to meet the reporter for an evening interview at one of our local diners. There, over a cup of hot tea, I gave dates and years and reasons for leaving Ireland, followed by my motivations for staying in the U.S. of A.

I'm not sure "motivations" describes it. Most of the time, for most of us, it feels like one day rolls over into the next, and, gee, I just paid for a full tank of gas. So why waste $40 worth of refined petroleum by heading off to another country or, indeed, back to my native country of Ireland (where gas is much more expensive)?

Done well.

For some of the people I drive past on the highway every morning, I imagine that "done well" means getting to pay next month's rent. Or it means feeding their kids for another day. Or if I stroll through certain streets in Boston or my nearby cities in the Merrimack Valley, there are plenty of people for whom 'doing well' means snagging a dry, warm place to sleep for that night.

Or for an estimated 11 million people, 'doing well' means getting to stay within these shores (immigration reform, let's get a move on here), to do what they've already been doing: working and paying the rent and feeding themselves and their kids.  

Make no mistake about it: However "well" or sorta-well  us long-term expats may have done (and, of course, this is all relative and can implode at any time), we have a responsibility to these newcomers--to those folks not being called or interviewed by their local newspaper.

We also have a responsibility to live by that bootstrap phrase that our national and local politicians (especially in greater Boston) love to toss around and overuse: "Never forget where you came from."   

For me, "where I came from" is no longer my native country, but my heretofore status--26 years ago now--as a wide-eyed and petrified newcomer to these shores.

I've never forgotten that. I hope I never will.

In 2014: What Immigrants Contribute to the U.S. Economy 

Did you know that immigrants now comprise approximately 14% of the U.S. workforce? Also, immigrants are just as likely (as native born folks) to own their own businesses—thereby creating U.S. jobs.

Often, the public dialog tends to center around illegal immigrants, but every year, far more legally-admitted immigrants come here than those who enter without legal status (immigration reform, you're still not off the hook).

Among this legal group, 16% are sponsored by U.S. employers to fill in positions for which no U.S. worker was available, and an additional 8% come as refugees or asylees, fleeing persecution and looking for safety and freedom in the U.S. The remainder come for family reasons.

The Contribution of Undocumented Immigrants

They contribute their talents, their labor, their languages, cultures and outsider insight. Many risk their lives to come here. They also contribute cold, hard cash. Yep! Contrary to the fact-mangling vitriol I've had to endure at dinner and cocktail parties, undocumented immigrants do, in fact, pay taxes--a whopping 7.7 million of them, according to one study. Cumulatively, undocumented immigrant workers pay an estimated 11.2 billion into the U.S. Social Security fund, and an additional 2.6 billion into Medicare—money and benefits that the immigrant workers themselves will never be able to reclaim as benefits.

Myths, questions and answers about U.S. Immigrants 

http://wellstone.mpls.k12.mn.us/myths_about_immigrants2

NPR "Here and Now" segment, "Can Immigrants Save Small-Town America?"

Op-Ed piece"Don't Shut the Golden Door" in the New York Times?

Test your own knowledge with this quiz from "The New Americans," from the  PBS series, 'Independent Lens.'

Copyright 2011-2014 Aine Greaney
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