Aine Greaney

Author

Boston author and essayist from Ireland

Why Immigrants Abandon, Then Search For Home

This month, I am delighted to have my work showcased at Numéro Cinq, an exquisite literary journal founded and funded by the Canadian-born author Douglas Glover

Irish poet and author Gerard Beirne is among the journal's editors, and Beirne curates  the journal's Irish section titled,  "Uimhir a Cúig" (Numero Cinq as Gaeilge).  

My memoir "What Brought You Here" is about my emigration from Ireland to the USA at age 24.  

The book tackles the immigrant's perpetual search for home and our need to find and fight for a new identity in a country that will never be truly ours. 

Have a read. Engage in the conversation around and with all of Numéro Cinq's contributing writers. 

***
 

The Americans said I had courage.

They said it just as I got to that part about the fries or salad or soup, and how our restaurant customers could choose one side dish with each selected lunch special.“Are you from Ireland?”

“Yes, I am.”

“How long have you been over here?”

“Three months.” Then, “Six months” Then, “Two years.”

“Oh! What brought you here?”

The wife asked these first questions. The husband had his own set of queries: “North or south?” “Catholic or Protestant? “Are your French fries hand cut or frozen?”

Read the entire excerpt here

 

 

Writing About Past Loves

Is it the advent of Valentine's Day, a holiday I claim to dislike, but that I seem to like writing about?

Is it some Chaucer-ian longing for springtime? Is it middle age?

Whatever it is, whatever has come over me, last week I rather grandly told some friends, "I'm writing a collection of short stories about my exes."

This is only partially true. What I didn't tell them is that I'm writing a collection of short fiction about the pathology and injury of romantic love.  How's that for Valentine's Day romance?

I remember the night this idea started.  Last year, I flew to Florida for a conference,  and, being frugal, I bypassed the officially listed lodgings for something nearby and cheaper.  

Well, you really *do* get what you pay for. That first wakeful night in that gritty motel (which looked nothing like its web photos), I relived one particular relationship that, while brief, was nothing short of madness.

After that sleepless and self-flagellating night, I became intrigued by the narrative, the vertiginous and often willful fall from affection to estrangement. 

So I began scribbling some fictional stories that are very loosely based on my own past dalliances. Some stories auto-emerged in third person; some insisted on a first-person voice. Some are from the man's point of view--which is especially fun to write. 

Note I say the stories are only "loosely" based on autobiographical events.  Like I say, I want to excavate and examine the injury,  not the chronology here.  And anyway, when it comes to writing fiction, the imagination can produce much more exciting stuff than the past ever could (most of the time).    

I'm having great, great fun with this. Last night  I even got up out of my bed to pen the latest story and kept going until 2 a.m. 

Listen, if this all sounds a little grim and revisionist, let me tell you that I have little or no truck with all that "don't let your past define you" malarkey.  Of course our pasts define us.  Our history is the only real narrative we have--and even that's dodgy at the best of times.

So I live in the past. Doesn't every writer?

 

   

A Christmas Surprise

Two years ago I participated in an Advent virtual blog tour, in which a group of us online bloggers shared memories or cultural traditions from our Christmases past.  

Advent is the Christian tradition of preparing for the birth of Christ. 

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This year, thanks to Sprite at SpriteWrites, we’re back and ready to share a set of posts that will get you in the spirit. 

In my native Ireland, the Christmas season (back then, we were a 99.9% Catholic country, so there was no “holiday” season—just Christmas) always started on December 8.

It was an unspoken but very strict rule. No decorations, no lights, no carols until December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (and no, the numbers don't jibe).

Back then, our religious holidays  and celebrations were set and celebrated by the liturgical calendar, not the retail or advertising industries.   

December 8 was an official Holy Day of Obligation, which meant we had a day off from school and we were expected to attend Mass up in the village church, but unlike Sundays, the shops stayed open.

Now, although this date kicked off the Christmas season, and although it was dark and cold outside, to an impatient kid like me, December 8 felt like a non-holiday.  Christmas--the proper holiday--was still days and days and days away.

Back then my family lived in a tiny, thatch-roof farmhouse at the end of a dirt road or boithrin that ran up through our fields and paddocks. Our house and farm sat in a hollow behind the village proper, giving us a distanced,  bottom-up view of the backs of our village neighbors’ houses.

One December 8,  I think I was eight (or perhaps seven) when, after church and our midday meal,  my live-in Grandmother summoned a taxi to drive her to the town three miles away. 

The house was always quieter when Grandma wasn’t there and, without the usual rush to and from school, with no evening chores or homework, the afternoon dragged.   

Bored, I ventured up to our tatty little sitting room (usually for guests only) in the mad hope that, maybe this year, my mother would have started taking the tinsel and decorations from their box.

She hadn’t.  As I wrote in this Christmas essay last year,  especially when it came to holidays, we were a family of last-minute-ers. 

 But someone had lit a fire in the sitting room grate, so I switched off the light and sat in a brown leather armchair to watch the firelight and shadows chase each other along the flocked wallpaper.

Later, a set of car headlights arched against the front window.   

Grandma. She was home from town and now, there'd be lots of chatter about what and who she saw and what that person said and how crowded or empty the shops were and all the news from Kit’s, her regular hairdressing salon on High Street.  

That farm of ours was an isolated and lonely place, so there was nothing I loved better than reports from town--or from anywhere out there beyond our farmyard gates. 

But by age 8, I was already growing secretive. I was already finding ways to hide out rather than join in. 

I heard the kitchen door bang shut.  I heard the burr of grown-up voices from the kitchen.  Another door. Then, here came Grandma's shuffling step in the hallway.  Damn.   She always kept her winter coats (all black) with the fox fur collars hanging in a white closet in the sitting room. So now, here she was, coming to hang up her coat and she would discover me hiding out here and order me, at once, to join everyone in the kitchen where the range was lit and the evening programs were on T.V. 

In the sitting room, she started at the sight of me sitting there in the firelight by myself.  Thanks to Kit's handiwork, my grandmother's gossamer-white hair was now tinted a surreal blue-grey, and the room reeked of hair lacquer. 

“I brought you something from town,” she said, switching on the overhead light and holding out a little brown-paper bag. 

What was this? We weren't a family for sudden or un-earned gifts.  

Chocolate? Toffees? No. This paper bag was far too big.

I opened the package to find a kiddie novel by Enid Blyton, a hugely popular British children’s author. 

A book. A brand-new book that had never been owned by anyone else before me.  A book. For me.  And it wasn’t even Christmas yet.

 Grandma hung up her coat and shuffled off back to the kitchen. 

 Nobody came to get me. Nobody summoned me for supper or told me it was time to get ready for bed and school tomorrow.

I switched off the light again and sat there, reading by the firelight and letting my new book transport me far, far away from that room and our house. 

Instead, I joined the book's kiddie characters as we all ran and rode across a windswept moor in the south of England.  

Oh, yes. This was Christmas bliss.

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Hey, Writers! Can You Come Out To Play?

I love when I find a class or presentation on a topic that's dear to my heart and that links my working and creative lives.

So, a few weeks ago, imagine my joy when I landed on a six-week course, "Medicine and The Arts,"  presented by the University of Cape Town.  

I'm far from a technical Luddite,  but I must admit that I'm not quite over the shock of being able to sit on my American couch while listening  to interdisciplinary faculty in a university half-way around the world. 

Still, brave-new-world technology aside, I can honestly say that I rush through my dinner each night so I can log in to learn and discuss with my fellow online learners. 

Last week's module was on creativity and play. 

Hmmm ... play. As a writer with a busy day job, I think there are times when I forget how to pronounce that word. I forget to be--or how to be--playful.

And, if you read some contemporary author interviews, it seems like I'm not alone here. 

One interview: "I started writing seriously when I ..."   Another:  "I got really serious about my writing after my first short story got published." Or, "I knew it was time to stop kidding around and get serious (about my writing)." 

Reading these (and some of my own past commentary), a non-writer could be forgiven for thinking that we writers regard the creative process as an acetic vocation--and a rather punishing one at that!  

 Now, what if,  instead of regarding each writing project as a mountain to be scaled, a race to be run, a set of creative boxes to be ticked, we took time out to let our minds and pens just wander?  In playing (posits one of last week's video lectures) we unleash our subconscious to go hunt and gather new ideas.  Also, in terms of reflective or wellness writing, play provides a  temporary reprieve from the current or past circumstances (such as an illness or trauma) and this, in turn, gives us ownership over our own stories. 

I know when I'm stuck in an essay or chapter, it helps to shut down the laptop and take out my writing journal to free-write or doodle or just make silly lists. I've also had great fun writing and recording audio essays.  

This morning, I listened to a radio interview with poet Mary Oliver in which she described her daily habit of going outdoors and waiting, pen poised, for whatever comes. By switching the genre and format, we give ourselves a recess with no rules or expectations or limits.

Of course, a long walk helps with this process, too. 

Can you incorporate play into your writing life?  How?

Writing: The Enemy Of Mindfulness?

I meditate, but only for 10-minute stints, and I don't do it every day.  I’m a very sporadic and inconsistent yogi. I've never been to an ashram and probably never will.

Yet, I claim to live a (sorta) mindful life.   I can sit in traffic or get horribly lost and turn these mishaps into a positive--something I could never have done when I was in my 30s or even in my 40s.  I can assure myself: “This (detour) is letting me see places I’d never have seen otherwise.”

Or, two weeks ago, I sat in gridlock on the way to meet writer friends on Cape Cod. Rather than yanking on my steering wheel to cut across three lanes of traffic to exit (as some of my fellow Boston drivers did), I sat back to enjoy the Sunday-morning radio programs on National Public Radio.

So to some degree mindfulness—the ability to just live in and enjoy the present moment—has made my middle aged life much richer and, I hope, healthier.

So has writing. 

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So why, then,  do writing and mindfulness often play against each other?  Why does one (writing) undo what the other (mindfulness) achieves?  

For answers, maybe I need to look no further than my online calendar and all its reminders for future submission dates for maybe- or future publications or bylines.

So here's the biggie question about writing and mindfulness: How much does this future-ness, this possibility or promise of selling or placing our work influence or diminish the actual work itself?  

I'm not proud to admit this, but there are days when my writing life, my whole sense of my career and life success, is governed by that calendar and what might arrive in my email in-box.

To my credit, I often use Macfreedom to block my WiFi service and the  possibility of  digital distractions.  My household phone could ring off the hook before I’ll race to pick it up.  At home and at work, I am good at prioritizing, categorizing and scheduling my responses to non-urgent emails.

But hands up, now. How many of us have instantly stopped what we're doing—including writing—to open and read an email from an acquisitions or magazine editor? I know I have.  I've even been known to  pull my car into a roadside car park in the hope that this is an email that tells me that, at some future date, in some magazine's future issue or a publisher’s upcoming list,  my essay or manuscript will get published.  

Now, wouldn’t this kind of future-tense (or should that be 'tense future?') thinking get me permanently disbarred from the mindfulness club?  

But wait! There's more. 

I’ve urged my writing students to shut out their inner critics to just write, write, write.  I’ve begged them not to stop the creative flow to go trawling back through the story or essay to look for potential spots to edit or change. "Write onward!" I say. And, in that moment, I actually mean it.  

But wait! It gets worse. 

I’ve facilitated journal-ing and wellness writing workshops where I’ve assured the participants that, other than the scratch of pen on paper,  there should be nothing else in this precious writing moment. 

So I renege on my own mindfulness promises,  When I do, I know that I cheat myself and my writing.  

I've got to find a way to fix this.  Really. 

As a writer, how do you shut out the world—including the publishing world—to write, write, write and be mindful, mindful, mindful?

Surviving Writers Rejection

I still remember that day when my then-publisher rejected my second book, which was to have been Book 2 in a two-book contract.  

In retrospect, I'm sure that editor was justified. The book was a 180-degree switch from the first book, it wasn't very plot driven, and it was, she said,  "very dark in places."  

Etcetera, etcetera. 

Now, over a decade later, it's not  the editorial rationales that I remember most, but my  own sorrow.

 I'm not proud to admit this, but I did actually take to my bed.  I did actually weep into my pillow. I did actually believe that I would never publish anything again. 

I was wrong about that last part.  A few editing rounds later, the novel got published and even garnered some awards and recognitions. 

I was also wrong to waste my tears, to let an editor's rejection reduce me to a level of grief that we should save for life's real traumas--like death or illness. 

And yet ...

Even the toughest writer feels the sting of rejection, especially for that piece of writing that we hold dear.  It double hurts for those pieces or books that we suspect or know are being rejected for marketability over thematic depth or literary quality.  

I've been writing for most of my life and writing for publication for over two decades.  Looking back, many rejections were and are warranted and helpful, while others hit and hurt deeply.

So this week, I was delighted to find  this article, "3 Eye-Opening Lessons for Rethinking Rejection"   at "World of Psychology."

This section rang especially true for me: 

Rejection doesn’t just sting. It makes us question or dismiss whatever we’ve created. It makes us question ourselves as individuals. It confirms our worst nightmares, our inner critic’s blistering beliefs. It shakes up our self-worth, and hurts us at our core

 "3 Eye-Opening Lessons For Rethinking Rejection" not only offers comfort, but also nudges us toward some self-analysis. Where does our fear of rejection come from? How much does that fear hold us back from new or true projects? Worse, is our fear of rejection making us hedge our bets by writing for the current (and always fickle) publishing market?

For a writer, these--not the editor's checklist of personal tastes or marketplace possibilities--are the big, big questions to ask. 

You probably have your own strategies or tips for bouncing back from rejection.  I try to use the 48-hour rule. Within 48 hours of receiving a rejected query or piece, I re-read, re-fix and re-submit to another editor. 

When it comes to rejection, we writers share the pain and should stand together. 

So give us your tips (below in the comments) for rejection resilience and recovery. 

Writers Who Market Too Much

So let’s all stop shouting in a crowd and start having the kind of smaller conversations that actually help us to connect as human beings.

This week, a grand idea was slushing around in my head and I thought, "I must write something about that." But then, another author beat me to it, and her piece is much more eloquent than I could have written. 

Read this blog post, "Please Shut Up: Why Self Promotion as an Author Doesn't Work." by Delilah S. Dawson.  Now, doesn't Ms. Dawson's work validate every red flag you've ever had about that author "friend" who suddenly disappeared the minute her book publicity rush was over?  

Note: I use "she" here for ease of pronoun usage only.  In this case, we actually have gender equality. Male writers do the hyper marketing, faux-friend shtick, too.  

I love the point Ms. Dawson makes about how good books generate good book sales--not pushy social media and not tacky networking tactics.   

In addition to the quote above, I especially like this line from her blog post: "If they're (fellow writers) smart enough to write a great book, they're smart enough to see through your ploy."   

Most of us have been the victim of these "ploys" in which a so-called writer "friend" gets a whiff of a book sale or a speaking gig or a new agent and that friend morphs into a frothing jackal.

 

It goes like this: You and Ms. Jackal are deep in a bookish conversation that's so meaningful it's positively orgasmic (though those glances over your shoulder make you  suspect she's faking a little).  Then, Ms. Jackal spots her prey: that literatus across the room whom she believes will advance her  career. Or she spots that potential buyer whose purchase will earn her a whopping $1 in book royalties.  So you're conspicuously abandoned, mid-sentence, while Ms. J. goes in the for the kill.  

Why? Because you and Ms. J's own dignity are worth less than a dollar. 

Then there's the sly but equally tacky ploy.  In this case,  Ms. Jackal doesn't actually race away from you.  Instead, she seems positively chummy.  Then, by the time you get home from the book event, there is a "Friend" request or a mandate to "Like" her author page or a cookie-cutter invitation to connect with her on LinkedIn. No problem there, because (you persuade yourself) there will surely be a nice follow-up note or email with a link to that article or publishing lead you chatted about. 

Nada. And then it dawns on you: You were always just a sales prospect. Fresh kill. Nothing more. 

 I'm not a very sensitive person. I can, in fact, be abandoned mid-conversation and not really mind or care or take umbrage--most of the time.

What really burns me is what these pushy writer- marketing stunts actually mean for all of us: That we have begun to favor the commerce of writing over the art, the process and the possibility or reality of genuine writer friendships.

I always thought that the reason to make art was to create something beautiful, not something ugly, gauche or mercenary. In a loud and crowded marketplace, in the rush toward platform building, our art shouldn't become a combat sport. It shouldn't turn us against or set us upon each other. 

 So here's my question: If we allow our book sales to matter more than the words on the page or the friends around the tea table, then can we really call ourselves an artist?  

Don't get me wrong. Of course we writers have to roll up our sleeves and support our own outreach and marketing.  If we're going to pitch our camp in Writer-ville, we better be good literary citizens, the kind of neighbors who offer, give and return every favor, every cup of literary sugar that we borrow.    

 

 

 

Saint Patrick's Day Giveaway of Irish ebook

Here's my latest ebook from Pixel Hall Press.

As an Irish expatriate, I don't usually like Saint Patrick's Day, and I bristle at the stereotypes associated with what should be a cultural celebration.

If they made me Irish queen for a day, I would like to see the holiday as a way to showcase the Irish achievements in the arts, business and worldwide volunteerism. 

In the spirit of showcasing the arts, I'm giving away a free copy of my ebook, "La Belle Femme."

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

Celebrate Saint Patrick's Day With Literature

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.. March 15, 2015. 

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 March 17 2015.

 

 

 

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. 

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. 

Copyright 2011-2014 Aine Greaney
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