Aine Greaney

Writer

I am an essayist and fiction writer from Ireland who now lives in greater Boston.

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!

How Father Saved Christmas - Micro Memoir from an Irish Christmas

This is my contribution to the 2013 Virtual Advent Tour.  This blog tour was created by Kelly and Marg over at Virtual Advent to allow us to share a favorite Christmas or holiday memory. In western Christian tradition, the real-life Advent is all about anticipation, not recollection.  But what would the winter holidays be without pulling up a chair to tell some stories and remember those who are no longer with us?

So here goes:

I grew up in a small, rural village in the west of Ireland. On Christmas Eve, you could count on two things. First, every Christmas Eve morning, my late father, who worked double-time as a lorry driver and a farmer, promised my mother that, this year, he'd clock out early and be home by lunchtime.

He never was. In those days (late 1970s), many mothers still didn't drive, and we lived out in the country, so Dad's late-afternoon homecoming always pushed our last-minute errands right up to and often beyond deadline.  

It was a chaotic deadline, but somehow, it all got done, and, next day, we all got to sit around a pungent and overflowing dinner table.  Second, once he did arrive home, it was always Dad's job to tackle the Christmas tree lights.  Now, over four decades later, I can still see him standing there in the middle of our front parlor, still in his lorry-driver's uniform, twiddling, testing and then, when he found that one, recalcitrant bulb, dead-heading it until the rest of the strand worked.   

Our house sat directly across the street from the village church, so before our fellow parishioners (of course, their trees had long been plugged in, lit up and perfect. Well lah-dee-dah!) arrived for Christmas Eve Mass, we needed to have a festive tree set in the parlor front window.   Otherwise, we'd just look like slackers.

Most years, the Grand Light Showdown involved a few twiddles and curses and bulb replacements. But one year,  despite an entire evening's standoff and a series of grunted instructions to my sister and me (Here, hold this. No, plug that out. Try the other wall plug), those miniature lights just refused to ... well, light.

My father was the uber Christmas procrastinator. We all were. I still am. But even at 8:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, Dad wasn't a man to be beaten. He was a man of bright ideas and last-minute fixes--however unorthodox they might be.

Just as the pre-service lights came on in the church across the street, he stomped out of the parlor and through the house and across the farmyard where he revved up the car to drive three miles to the next village and its tiny, family-run shop that was sure to be open late.

It wasn't.

When Dad got there (he later told us), the only light was in the adjoining house, where, presumably, the family had gathered around the living room hearth for a cocoa-and-cake, drama-free Christmas Eve.  Yeah, weird, huh?

Dad clanked on the shop door handle.  Yep, locked.

Then, he found a gap in the pasted advertisements and faux-snow swirls to peer through the shop window, hoping that someone was still there doing last-minute clean-up. 

Nobody.

He crossed to the family's house where he rang on the front door.

"Just a set of lights," he told the shop owner, who stood there in his slippers. "You don't even have to open up the shop or the cash register. Just give me the lights, and I'll come and pay after Christmas." (Of course, we knew this local family, and they knew us).

"Sold out," said the shop owner. "Sold the last set of lights yesterday."

What transpired next I have never known, but somehow Dad persuaded or bribed the man to open up the shop and unhook the string of lights from the shop's own display window. Were they given as a neighborly gift? Or was this an overpriced, supply-and-demand kind of transaction like scalped concert or sports tickets? I would bet the former.

In any case, Dad arrived home with a set of slightly used, commercial grade Christmas lights. He plugged them in and strung them around our tree.

That Christmas, we had the brightest blinking wattage in our village.

Who are you remembering or missing this Christmas? Feel free to share your memories below. 

Meanwhile, jog your memory and storytelling acumen with this "12 Days of Christmas" video from Frank Kelly, one of Ireland's best actors and humorists (he played Father Jack in Ballykissangel). I dare you not to laugh.

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 2013: 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.'

Your First Writing Draft: Typed or Handwritten?

I’m working on my first book-length memoir. It’s terrifying. The general theme or topic: My immigration, at age 24, to America. Rather than just a ME-moir, I blend the personal narrative with national and family history, economics and psychology to examine the socio-economic, feminist and spiritual factors that made me (and 200,000 other young 1980s Irish) leave my own country.  

Depending on what gets to stay in there, I’ve written about 75 pages.

Fifty of those pages are well-polished keepers, though a literary agent or editor might have other ideas.  Mostly, I wrote and re-wrote those first 50 pages early in the morning, before leaving for work, on a laptop.  I just sat there, half asleep and clacked away.  These first 50 pages have taken me to that plot point where I’ve gotten my U.S. visa, I’ve filled in some back story (the why I left), I've said my goodbyes and I’ve hoisted my backpack on my back to leave for the airport and my transatlantic flight.

Then (cue the creepy music), it was time to generate new stuff, as in, a lot of new stuff, as in, the first few chapters of the American part of the story.

Oh hell.  I tell you, nothing, not even shopping for last year's bathing suit, was as scary.

So I did the adult thing: I found a nice big pile of sand and stuck my head as far into it as I could without actually ingesting sand or suffocating myself to death.  Oh, I didn't quit writing. Nope. I just found other oh-so urgent, must-do projects, so I could procrastinate on what I really needed to do: those first American chapters.

I don't know why I was so frightened. Mostly, when I drafted them in my head, I felt a terrible sorrow, a mother-lion protectiveness in which I wanted to take that young emigre (me!) and lead her by the hand and protect her from all the things she didn't, couldn't possibly know. More, I wanted to give her a sense of and pride in herself and, most important, the chutzpaha to assert that self.

Ah, middle-aged revisionism.

Then, one morning last week, I got myself up out of bed with, “Just get to it, and stop these damn excuses."

So I switched on my laptop. I must say, it's a very nice laptop.  And it has this super, beautiful Facebook app and Twitter and email and ... (more procrastination).

IMG_20131111_093639_755
IMG_20131111_093639_755

Then, thoroughly fed up with myself, I shut off the laptop and opened up my brand new journal, a well-chosen birthday gift from a great writer friend.

My hand stopped shaking.

America, at least via pen and paper, lost its scare factor. In fact, I am amazed by what this handwritten draft is unearthing, what I am managing to remember from 27 years ago. I am equally shocked to discover what the older, middle-aged me thinks about those early American years and my own immigration. Would all this memory and wisdom have come as easily in a typed first-draft?

Memory and wisdom.

I'm glad to say that there's a good chunk of both there now, in black (pen) and white (paper).

Do you type or hand-write your first drafts?  Does it depend on the topic, in that certain subjects lend themselves to keyboard, while others absolutely must be journaled or hand-written?  

For Labor Day: Seamus Heaney and Other Thoughts on Work and Writing

I wrote this exactly a year ago, never thinking that it would become one of many international elegies  for a great poet and wit and humanitarian.

Séamus Heaney's poem, "Digging" has always been my favorite piece of literature about work.

Have a listen to Heaney reading from his poem, "Digging."

Or read the printed version (below).

Random Thoughts on Poetry, Writing and Labor

As an undergraduate in Dublin, I was lucky enough to have Seamus Heaney as my professor and the chair of our English Department. As I sit here now, today, in America, I can shut my eyes and hear him reading to us in that second-floor classroom, to a rag-tag group of 18-year-old undergrads who were too young and too immature to appreciate what we were really hearing.

Years later, just before he became a Nobel laureate, I read an interview with Heaney in some Irish magazine in which he spoke briefly about his then-dual life as a working professor and as one of the world's most esteemed poets. In the interview, I loved the part where he stated that he always considered it his first duty to earn a living and provide for his family.

My father also dug his share of potatoes and turf and God knows what else. Above all else, my father believed in paying his way, in working hard.

In 2011, a year before Dad died, he told me that he was most proud of having produced an equally hard-working family.

Today, on Labor Day, I am proud to be the kind of hard worker who could make my father proud.

+++++++++

Séamus Heaney  (1939-)

Digging

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:

My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds

Bends low, comes up twenty years away

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills

Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep

To scatter new potatoes that we picked

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,

Just like his old man.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner's bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, digging down and down

For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I'll dig with it.

- from Death of a Naturalist (1966)

Writers! Write to your own body rhythm

When my late mother met my then-boyfriend, she shared some maternal advice. "She's a pure devil in the mornings," she said, nodding toward me (I thought all devils were impure, but ... anyway).  Then, my mother proceeded to describe those childhood breakfasts when I sat at the table, bleary-eyed and speechless. Sometimes, I nodded back to sleep over my bowl of porridge.

I've never been a morning person.  I doubt I ever will. But that boyfriend married me anyway (we celebrate 25 years of mornings next week).

Over the years, I've gotten better at obeying that damn alarm clock, but it still takes my brain an hour or more to fully wake up. For those morning meetings at work, I have to stoke myself with extra, extra-strength coffee (there's a *strict* no-porridge policy in the boardroom) just to be marginally coherent.

And those vacation bed and breakfasts places? Yuck. Chattery, all-guest breakfasts around the frilly dining-room table are my idea of hell.

This past spring, I really needed to increase my weekly writing output. So I began setting my morning alarm clock for an hour earlier. Also, determined to bypass the downstairs kitchen distractions (cat, husband, newspaper, brown-bag lunch prep), I bought myself a small red Thermos.

At night, I fill my Thermos with coffee, then set it next to my laptop on a small desk in an attic room in our house. As well as providing that instant morning eye opener, this nightly Thermos ritual creates the anticipation of morning writing.  

Once that alarm goes off, I roll out of bed, climb the attic stairs, turn on the laptop and unscrew my Thermos cap--all while still half asleep. 

Four or six-hundred words later, I'm still not really awake. But I'm done with that day's writing. I'm ready to get ready for my day job.

I adore this morning solitude.  It makes my whole day go better. And, even more than extending my daily writing quota, this sleep-writing shtick has had an unexpected payout:  With my left-brain still on dimmer switch,  I have neither the urge nor the acuity to read back through what I've written to nitpick and change things.

Now, it's late summer and I have an entire 70-plus pages of my book. Oh, yes, on weekend afternoons and on my days off, I've read through and nitpicked--and nitpicked.  But there would be little or nothing to edit if it weren't for those early-morning, unfettered drafts. When it's a challenge just to keep your eyes open, you just keep writing.

This article in The Wall Street Journal, "The Peak Time for Everything," cites a growing body of research that suggests that, according to our individual body clocks, we have our own optimal times for certain tasks. And that these rhythms, not our actual schedules, should dictate when we do them.

My only question: I knew this before. Didn't I? So why, oh why didn't I capitalize on it? 

Have you found an unprecedented but perfect match between your daily schedule and your writing needs? Share in the comments below. 

Writing about Tough Stuff (and then getting on with your day?)

I'm writing my first book-length memoir. It's something I thought I would never, ever write--that I would never have the stomach for.  But I am writing it. I feel compelled to write it. It's called "What Brought You Here," and it's the story about my leaving Ireland at age 24 to come and live in the U.S.  The title derives from all those times when someone heard my non-American accent and inquired: "Oh, what brought you here?"

The story is, of course, about much more than just a set of economic drivers or the adventures and misadventures of my early years in America. This book is the proverbial long and complex answer to that very short question (what brought you here).

I've just drafted and printed the first 50 pages. I have no idea if it will ever get published.

Last Monday, I flipped back through the "easier" stuff to write and insert a really difficult scene.  How difficult? I, a woman who (mostly) breezes through the transatlantic airport departure lounge completely dry-eyed, sat here at my computer weeping.

Then, this morning, almost a week later, I got up, made coffee and tackled the second-most difficult scene. As soon as I began to write Difficult Scene 2, I instantly sank into another bout of  melancholy.

2013-06-15 11.27.38
2013-06-15 11.27.38

Surely this is a kind of willful psychosis?  Surely, on an ordinary American Sunday, a day when the sun is shining through my writing-studio window, it would be easier and healthier not to revisit or revive the past. To simply stay in the present?

But for better or worse,  I've written both scenes. In doing so, I've committed to typed words one of the saddest and loneliest times of my adult life.

Writing these scenes--actually the whole book so far--has taught me that sometimes, we commit our worst acts of cowardice, our most heinous acts of negligence against ourselves.

So I'm done.    I'm free to get up from this desk and go about the rest of my normal American Sunday.   

Or am I?

Busy, Guilt-Ridden Writers! Write What You Can

Two weeks ago I attended an after-work spiritual retreat at Rolling Ridge, a  retreat facility and conference center that's located only about a half-hour from my office. It had been a hectic week, so I welcomed this chance to kick back, meditate and just generally let someone else do the talking or better yet, shush my brain altogether.    

The presenter began with a story about two monks--one older, one younger. One day, the junior monk confessed to his mentor how, as a neophyte, he could never seem to measure up; he could never be as pious as his elders. The younger monk said, "You get up so early every morning.  You seem to pray with all your heart and soul.  I could never hope to pray like that."

The elder monk smiled and said, "Why don't you pray what you can, not what you can't."

This advice really applies to our writing. It especially applies to those of us who constantly dither between our creative lives and our other responsibilities, including work. Honestly, there are weeks when I should get a golden gloves for all the jabs I take at myself, for how much I beat myself up over all that "I can't" do, or haven't done or failed to do.

In her inspirational blog for writers, Barbara Ann Yoder dubs this, "emotional self-flagellation," a state she finds counterproductive.

Barbara adds:

I think it’s important to acknowledge that jobs, relationships, cross-country moves, illnesses, and many other challenges can and do at times take precedence over writing.

For me, this "emotional self-flagellation" is often rooted in a monkish belief that only long-form writing stints qualify as "real" writing. 

Or, for another perspective, check out Lisa Romeo's writing blog, in which she also refutes that perennial advice about writing every day.

Lisa says:

But to my mind the most detrimental piece of standard writing advice is the one that declares that in order to be a *real* writer (whatever that is), one must write every single day, often amended to include that one must write a set number of pages or words, or a set amount of time per day.

Since attending that evening retreat, I've been trying to change my own thought processes.

On those days when I simply can't get 500 words on the page, I force myself to ask: What can I do?

Can I do a short morning meditation to clear my brain and develop a better and more creative attitude? Can I journal for five minutes?

journal
journal

Can I switch on my laptop and just read yesterday's paragraph so that I have at least "visited" my work in progress for that day? Can I do a quick read-through and edit of the first paragraph? Can I write up a to-do list of what's left or outstanding in the work? Can I play a scene through my head while I'm driving to the day job?

By focusing on what I can do, I am actually getting more writing done--or at least, I'm staying more consistently engaged in the work.

And best of all, I'm on much better terms with myself--and this life called writing.

What on-the-fly, quickie writer strategies save your writing days?

Copyright 2011-2014 Aine Greaney
Contact