August 2018: The Northwestern University Summer Writers’ Conference

This month I attended the Northwestern University Summer Writers’ Conference which ran August 9-11 at the downtown Chicago campus.   The conference is a mix of sessions and panels on writing craft and the writing business, primarily geared towards fiction and creative non-fiction writers as well as poets.  Here are some of my takeaways from the conference and my tips for getting the most out of professional conferences and maximizing your comfort.

Writing Business: Residencies, Resumes, and Contests

  • If you are interested in applying to a writers’ residency, this website was recommended by several attendees has an excellent guide to applications.
  • Writers’ organizations and residency hosts are starting to acknowledge that many people experience significant barriers to attending a residency–especially writers with disabilities, writers who have children and are primary caregivers, and writers who have limited or no paid vacation time.  The Chicago Artists Resource lists several artist-in-residence programs that prioritize accessibility, including the MacDowell artists’ community.
  • Residency applications, as well as many other professional writing opportunities (such as querying an agent) will often require an artist’s resume.  If you have never compiled an artist’s resume before, these are the items you should generally include: your education; conferences or workshops you’ve attended; awards you’ve won; selected publications; press (i.e. if you’ve been interviewed or had articles written about you); related professional experience (i.e. day job stuff that’s germane to your writing).  It’s not hard and fast, so pick the categories that reflect your experience and omit the others.
  • Here is an example of an artist’s resume.  She is a visual artist, but the principles are the same.
  • Some advice on assessing contests fees–there isn’t a clear cut off point on when a contest fee is excessive, it is all about context.  Most contests have fees between $5 to $45, but you need to consider what you are sending.  If you are submitting a novel for a publication deal (and you’ve vetted the publication details of course!), then $20 is not unreasonable, but if you are submitting a flash fiction piece, then $20 would be excessive.
  • For marginalized writers, contests can be a possible avenue to reducing the role of bias by an editor, since editors usually don’t see the names and personal details of the writer.  It doesn’t eliminate it, but one of the panelists, who is a woman of color, said that this was a reason she enters writing contests.

Writing Craft:

  • I really enjoyed the session on writing the body, taught by Kathleen Rooney  I thought that the first session would be about describing physical experiences–and we did discuss that–but Kathleen pushed us to focus on how we approached writing the body.  What cultural lenses and filters do we automatically use when we begin to write about bodies?  The session pushed me to reconsider how I approach writing physicality.
  • I also enjoyed the session on organizing long-term projects, taught by Amin Ahmad.  Amin was an architect before he began writing novels and he walked us through how he used to approach designing a building and the way he uses that blueprint (no pun intended!) for designing a long-form writing project.  I found it to be a very useful way of thinking about the writing process.

Tips on Maximizing Your Comfort at Conferences:

  • You do not have to attend all days or all sessions to get a lot out of a conference.  I used to try to go to every session, panel, keynote address luncheon, networking happy hour, regional chapter meetup dinner, and late-night vendor-sponsored karaoke party before collapsing in my hotel room and then doing all again for another three days.  Now I pace myself more and even though FOMO is particularly persistent at conferences, I remind myself that it is better to be present and healthy at fewer events than exhausted and half-listening to everything.
  • Bring writing materials to sessions–I know, I know, this seems like a no-brainer, but here is my secret:  I don’t just write notes about the session, I also write down story ideas, blog posts, projects, and other lists.  I find listening to conference lectures and panels and performances to be very mentally stimulating and I’ve started embracing the flow of ideas that happen.  I still pay attention to the event but I let myself free associate as well and paradoxically this helps me stay more focused on the topic.
  • Bring layers, a water bottle, and snacks.  Conference rooms vary wildly in temperature and having a cardigan or shawl (or best, a big soft wrap I can roll up and stash in my bag) makes the experience a lot more pleasant.  Even if the conference provides water and snacks, it is nice to have a refillable bottle and you never know when a session will run over or if there won’t be enough food.
  • When meeting new people at writing conferences, I enjoy asking what they like to write or if they have any current projects they are excited about.  It is a very accessible question that can be answered by anyone at any point in their writing career and avoids the “What do you do?” or “What have you published?” questions, which can be very anxiety-producing for a lot of people (which makes people less likely to talk to you) and frankly, aren’t very interesting questions.  I’m much more interested in what people are interested in (which may be their jobs or their publications, but I’ll let them tell me that).  It is also subtly different than “What do you write?” which you get asked a lot at writing conferences, so it stands out a bit more and is a nice change of pace.

Last but not least–if you are going to a conference, it is worth it to print out business cards (Vistaprint has good deals).  I forgot mine two days in a row and I hate scribbling out details on scraps of paper that get lost and crumpled.  Do as I say, not as I did!

 

July 2018: Goats, Flamenco, and Remembering How to Play in My Writing Practice

As I mentioned May’s blog post, I’ve been learning to adjust my writing work style from what I  call “Angry Goat Headbutts Rock In Between It and Lovely Grass” to “Slightly Wiser Goat Looks Around Curiously to See if There is An Alternate Way to Get to Grass.”  The goat is me and the grass is the story,  by the way, if that metaphor wasn’t clear.

[Image description: a small baby goat with a brown and white body pushes its head into a person’s hand]

When writing (or anything else) starts to feel hard, my method up to date has been to keep showing up at the page and push through–effectively punch my way to the other side through willpower and gritted teeth.  Sometimes this works…but sometimes it doesn’t.  More and more research shows that willpower is a finite resource and can be fatigued by overuse and this has been true in my experience.   There is a romantic notion that  “real artists” devote all their willpower to their art–but that is not realistic or reflective of artists’ lives.  Certainly not my life, as much as I might want that to be true.  And even if my willpower was boundless as the galaxy and someone else could take care of all my physical, emotional, and social needs, there are some problems in writing that can’t be solved by sheer force.

When I complained to several friends about not being able to work my way through a story and having more and more difficulty gathering enough willpower to write, they asked about my writing practice and gently suggested that I prioritize fun and play in my writing.

“You’re using willpower for everything.  Maybe trying playing as a different tool.  Write stuff for fun, focus on the joy of it.  Follow what feels good sometimes.”

I immediately made this face.  And I kept headbutting away.

Stubborn Baby Goat is a candidate for my Patronus [Image description: a white baby goat looks up with a stubborn expression]

Back in January, I started taking flamenco dance classes–I wanted to learn flamenco since I was 13 and saw a performance at the Lotus World Music and Arts Festival in my hometown but shortly afterward, I started experiencing severe foot pain and was diagnosed with a type of irritation of the nerve due to a quirk of my foot anatomy.  There’s not really a cure since I can’t change the shape of my feet and my podiatrist told me to avoid high impact dancing and high heels, which is a perfect description of flamenco.  But I continued to watch videos of flamenco performers and imagined myself stomping to the guitar.

Finally, bored with my exercise routine, I decided to give it a try and see if I could make flamenco work for me.  I found that I could be in flamenco shoes and dance for one hour tops, and I could practice heelwork for 30 minutes at most.  This means that even if I want to keep headbutting my way through some challenging choreography, I just can’t.   I’ve found to my surprise that I can still keep up with the class even if I can’t practice for hours at a time and that some movements just take time to learn.

One day our instructor asked us to practice our expression.  “Stop being so dainty!  You are not ladies sipping tea!  You are tigresses showing that you will not be trifled with!” she said.  We stopped drilling footwork and instead tried making fierce faces at each other as we walked across the room.  “I know this might seem silly or trivial–but you have to practice confidence and a range of expressions.  If you don’t practice having a fierce attitude, it will be harder to perform with it.  It’s important to play around with this.”

As I was practicing my tigress face at home, it hit me–I wasn’t playing in my writing because it felt too important.  I love writing and stories and I want to write well so I was drilling but I wasn’t practicing a range of expressions.  I was afraid that playing with feeling and expression would come at the cost of good writing but not playing was going to come with a cost too.  If I didn’t start to play, I’d keep losing the joy of writing and watch it become brittle from drilling—and that was going to hurt like hell.  It was already hurting like hell, which was why I was so fiercely opposed to playing because I thought I could work and drill my way out of this problem.

It’s scary to do something new and uncomfortable, but we do scary stuff for the things we love.  So, I’m learning to play–I’d say learning to play again, but it’s been long enough that it doesn’t feel like “again” so much as learning for the first time.  We’ll see where this takes me.

My flamenco shoes, ready for practice. [Image Description: a black and white photo of a pair of worn black flamenco shoes on a wooden floor]

New Year, new story, and exciting news…

Happy New Year everyone!

I’m back at my desk after a week of family visits and back at my blog after a busy November/December.  Some exciting things happened this past month…

My gothic Midwestern flash fiction piece “Women’s Work” is up at Flash Fiction Online.  I love the art the editorial team picked to be featured with the story so much!  I’d also like to give a shout out to Tanya DePass for consulting on this story.  If you are looking for professional manuscript consultation regarding diversity issues (i.e.  you’re writing characters backgrounds and identities than you and you really don’t want to fall into tired tropes), I highly recommending working with Tanya.

My article “Interviewing Venture Capital and Private Equity Professionals” made the top five most popular article list on the Helen Brown Group’s The Intelligent Edge.  I started reading The Intelligent Edge when I started my first job in prospect research four years ago; reading it helped me dive right into important conversations in the field–so I’m very excited to be included on such a great resource!

On a political note, while I’m frustrated and angry and scared for what the recent U.S. presidential election means for my community, I’ve been impressed by the outpouring of activism and engagement from my professional and social circles.  Some highlights (including resources to bookmark!):

  1.  This call script for contacting public officials, including how to tailor your call based on your official’s voting history.
  2. This action list  by the Southern Poverty Law Center on how to combat everyday bias in ourselves and our communities and the creative activism by Showing Up for Racial Justice during Thanksgiving.
  3. The outpouring of donations to nonprofits that serve and advocate for people likely to be targeted by the Trump administration.
  4. This call to action and responsibility by Helen Brown  for those of us in the information gathering and disseminating profession and a similar call by Barbara Kingsolver.
  5. The insistence that we remember our history and act accordingly, by  Kameron Hurley and Danielle Tanimura.
  6. Seeing my friends, family members, and colleagues take the opportunity to have tough discussions, fundraise, and do difficult self-reflection during the holiday season.  Witnessing my community’s commitment to doing the work needed to build a safer and more just world helps me do the same.

Looking towards the future, I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions this year, but  two phrases have been rolling around in my head during the past month:

Follow the joy.

Do the the work.

I think that sums up my intention for 2017.

Let’s do this.

 

 

 

New Short Story Out at Metaphorosis Magazine…

metaphorosis_2016-10-313x500Metaphorosis Magazine just published my short story “Shine” today.  It’s about moonshine runners, Appalachian folklore,  finding your creative spark again….and a lot more.

One of the most fun parts of writing this piece was researching Appalachian ballads and writing one myself.  Also, interviewing a professional distiller to get my facts about whiskey-making right!

You can read the story here and my interview with Metaphorosis Magazine here.

 

New writing group site! And other writing news…

This week, my writing group, Just Write Chicago, launched our website.  In the past six years, we’ve grown from a small  group to a city-wide group of over two thousand members.  This March, Michael Mills and I will celebrate three years of running the south side chapter.

My favorite part about having a regular writing group is the support and consistency it brings to my life.  There have been many nights when I’ve arrived at a meet up feeling frustrated and stuck and the act of sitting down and writing, then talking with other writers made me leave feeling uplifted.  If you are interested in  starting your own writing group, check out my post on the subject.

In other writing news…

This past January, I took Mary Robinette Kowal’s Short Story Intensive workshop.  It  was one of the most useful writing courses I’ve taken to date.  I particularly enjoyed her approach to critique, which she details in this video.  Since taking her class, I’ve been using her exercises around the MICE quotient to outline a plot for my short stories.  For me, fiction ideas start as images or concepts, rather than as plot points.  I struggle with transferring the image into a plot structure, and using the idea of MICE and is helping me think through plot and structure.

Finally….

My friend Joy and I finally started the Quaker fashion blog we’ve been talking about for three years. As far as I know, it is the only Quaker fashion blog on the web–or in existence, ever.  Come for the William Penn jokes, stay for the queries about red lipstick, grandpa ties, and showing up for racial justice.  http://dapperquakers.tumblr.com/

 

So you don’t want to write 50K words…alternative ways to rock NaNoWriMo

As many writers are well aware, November is National Novel Writing Month, which was started right here, in my Second City-second home, Chicago.  The challenge is to write 50,000 words in one month, the length of a very short novel (more or less).  There are write-ins, online forums, parties, and lots and lots of chatter on the Interwebz about the virtues and pitfalls of NaNoWriMo.

I’m neither a NaNo-vangelist, nor a NaNo-grinch.  Word count goals have never been my jam, I find that they cause more anxiety than productivity for me.  However, I do like setting writing goals and I love creating writing communities, which NaNoWriMo does in spades.  So, for the past five years, I’ve used November as my personal “writing goal month” and taken advantage of the energy and organization of NaNoWriMo.  Here are five ways I’ve made NaNo fit me:

  1.  Write every. single. day. for a month.  Consistency is the key to writing for me.  If I don’t write regularly I feel guilty and nervous about starting up again and avoid writing, which makes me feel even guiltier and so forth.  It’s not logical, but that’s what happens. So, setting a consistency goal is a great way for me to spend November.
  2. Write a new draft every week.  One of the goals of NaNoWriMo is to get writers out of crippling perfectionism and encourage them to write a shitty first draft.  As one of my writing buddies says, “You can’t edit non-existent crap.” One year, I set the goal of writing a short story draft every week.  Not all of them ended up being pieces I wanted to continue working on, but a few did–and writing all of those stories helped clear out brain space for new ideas.
  3. Go to a write-in every week.  Organizing a writing group is time-consuming.  But during NaNoWriMo lots of people organize write-ins and all you have to do is check your regional forum page and show up at whatever write-in is nearest to you.  And if you’ve been wanting to start a writing group, November gives you the perfect opportunity.
  4. Set a goal for a piece in progress.  Maybe you need to go over editing notes from a bunch of workshops.  Maybe you want to finish Act Three of your novel.  Maybe you want to polish a draft of a live lit piece so you can finally submit it to a reading series.  Use November as the month you do that.
  5. Start (or re-commit to) morning pages.  I may not be a NaNo-vangelist, but I do believe that morning pages are useful for a lot of people.  I fell off doing morning pages during my busy October and I’ve committed to doing them again this November.  Try out morning pages for a month and see if they help your creative process. And if you’ve already experimented with morning pages and don’t like them, have a go at another writing habit you’ve been meaning to  try.  Writing long-hand instead of typing?  Using novel-writing software like Scrivener?  Making a writing playlist?  Going for walks before writing?  Writing in the morning?  Writing at night?  Carrying a notebook around?  Getting some new books at the library for inspiration?  The overarching idea of NaNoWriMo is to push yourself as a writer and there’s million ways to do that.

This year, my goals are to do my morning pages, finish a section of the long piece I’m working on, and to write every single day this month.  I’ve already failed my goals (forgot to write yesterday) but I’ve written more this past week than I did in the last two weeks, and setting goals has re-energized me.  And that friends, is the spirit of NaNoWriMo.

Happy writing!

How to put together a writing group

Writing ToolsDecide what the goal of the group is and communicate it clearly. Generally, there are two types of writing groups:  writing date groups and workshopping groups.  The goal of a writing date group is to devote time to writing; the goal of a workshopping group is to, well, workshop.  Some groups do a mix of the two.  Regardless of the set up, communicate clearly to the participants what the purpose of the group is.  It’s frustrating for everyone if a writer shows up expecting to get feedback and doesn’t, or if someone shows up expecting to have time blocked out for writing and doesn’t get it.

Figure out a regular meeting place or at least a regular way of communicating where you’ll be meeting.  Inconsistent meeting times or places is swift way to kill a writing group, especially if the participants don’t know each other well.  The point of a writing group is to focus your energy on writing–if you have to spend energy figuring out logistics, then that’s less energy spent on the actual writing.  Here are the pros and cons of a couple of common meeting places:

a)  Libraries:  My favorite place to meet writing groups–they’re free, they are open to all ages, they are usually open until at least 8pm, and they often have meeting rooms or study tables available.  The Chicago Public Library system just launched an online reservation system for  their meeting rooms, which is one of the most exciting things that happened this summer (I lead a quiet life).  The cons?  You usually need a library card to make a reservation, there might be a lot of competition for particular time slots, no food or drink to purchase.

JNB_1373

“Three hours of sitting and no drink or tip…that’s cool, that’s cool. Definitely not thinking about throwing this coffee at your head. Never even crossed my mind.”

b) Coffeeshops:  They are popular with writers for a reason, you can watch people without engaging with them, there are table and chairs and outlets and often WiFi, baristas are used to people writing there, coffeeshops are open to all ages, and of course, there’s readily available bean juice.  Cons include: you generally can’t reserve areas, which can be a problem is your writing group is big and there’s less privacy if you’re workshopping.  Further, while you can get away with just writing and not buying anything, it’s not recommended if you want to stay in the good graces of the staff–and if you’re meeting there regularly, you want to be in their good graces.

c) Private Homes:  I occaisionally run writing group session out of my home–it is convenient to the organizer, you can bring or make food, the group can stay as long as they want (provided you’ve worked it out with your roommates or partner), there’s lots of privacy if you are workshopping stuff that you don’t feel like shouting over the rattle of coffeecups.*  However, I’ve found that doing workshops or writing date sessions in a private home can feel more like a social get together which means it’s easy for the writers to get distracted.  And of course, there’s the safety and comfort issue–not everyone feels comfortable going to someone’s house, especially if you don’t know the host well.  And if your’re the host, it means you have to tidy up somewhat.**

d) Unusual spots: During National Novel Writing Month, there’s a lot of writing meet ups in unexpected places such as museums, hookah bars, train cars, and theatres.  There’s something really fun about meeting in place you don’t normally write in, it can spark creativity and be a good way to get out of a rut.  But of course, those places are less convenient–limited space, ticketed entry, etc.

If you are workshopping, have some agreed upon guidelines.  There are a lot of methods for workshopping, this post isn’t advocating a particular method but I do think that workshop participants should have an idea of what to expect (will they get written notes?  Are they allowed to respond to comments?).  If there are  rules you want to lay down, make that clear from the beginning (such as submitting no more than 10 pages, or submitting at least a week in advance).

If you are meeting to just get writing done, still structure the session.  I run a chapter of Just Write Chicago, in which we do exactly that–just write.  However, our writing sessions still have a regular format: we just write for about an hour and a half, then we spend 20-30 minutes introducing ourselves and talking about any writing issues that have come up that week.  Having a regular format helps focus the writing time and pushes folks to actually get stuff done, which is the point of writing date type groups.  I’m also a big fan of actually talking to people at the end of a writing session, it helps build community and gives people a chance to network.  And who else is going to listen to you talk about your imaginary friends that live on the page?

Think about community management.  If you are organizing a group of humans, whether it be a writing group, a sports team, or a rag-tag heist gang, you are going to have to think about community.  What are your values as a community and how do you practice them?  Do you want your writing group to focus on a particular demographic, such as novice writers, or working parents?  If so, how do you make your group accessible and helpful to them?  Similarly, if you value having a space for diverse experiences and voices, it’s worth looking at the specific ways white writers in workshop groups disregard writers of color and the ways in which women are disregarded by men in co-ed meetings so you can avoid those pitfalls.  Yes, it’s a lot to think about, but these issues are going to exist regardless of whether or not you address them–so you might as well be a responsible organizer and deal with them.

"Is this writing group working for me?"

This statue isn’t sure if she’s getting what she wants out of her writing group.

Check in with the group and yourself every so often.  I used to be really bad about this and would keep on attending or running a writing group, regardless of whether or not it was useful or fun for me.  It should be at least one of those things, preferably both.  So check in with everyone and see if it’s still worthwhile–people’s schedules and goals change, so sometimes even an awesome group stops working.  It’s hard enough to make time for writing, don’t let a writing group get in the way of writing.

*Fun fact:  In the 1940s Anais Nin ran a writing group in her apartment at the end of every month when all of her writer friends were broke and desperately trying to make rent.  They ate oatmeal (because that’s all they could afford), wrote naughty stories for about twelve hours straight, then sold them to a mysterious collector who paid by the page.  Flush with cash, the writers paid their rent and went on writing their novels and plays for the rest of the month.  Everyone won!

** For me, that usually means running around about 10 minutes before people arrive, frantically shoving laundry in the bedroom

Getting Unstuck

I’ve been feeling stuck for the past few months. I’ve been reading the same books, watching the same shows, making the same to-do list, heck–wearing the same outfits, over and over again, without feeling very engaged in any of it.  I haven’t felt completely completely bogged down or worried about something in particular–just stuck.   Spinning my wheels. Retracing my steps.

To get out of the rut, I’ve decided to do The Vein of Gold, a book of creative exercises by Julia

Cameron.  It’s a follow up to The Artist’s Way, a 12 week program meant to help people reconnect with their creativity.  Just about every artist I know has either done the The Artist’s Way, or knows someone who did The Artist’s Way and about 1.4 bazillion people recommended to me that I do it. In fact, so many people talked about how amazing the book is and recommended that I do The Artist’s Way, that I refused to, out of pure contrariness.    I am a contrary person sometimes.

This pug represents Contrary Amelia

This pug represents Contrary Amelia

I finally decided to do The Artist’s Way in 2012.  I had hit a roadblock in my job search, and I was having trouble writing, and generally feeling quite stuck and unhappy.  Some of the language of The Artist’s Way was off-putting (not offensive, it was just a little sincere and earnest even for me, and I am a bleeding heart Midwestern Quaker raised by a folksinger, so I have a damn high tolerance for sincerity), but the tasks were solid.  Julia Cameron focuses on  getting readers to both exercise their creativity here and now, and to build a roadmap for the future.

Going through the Artist’s Way helped me figure out what I wanted in a job, which in turn helped me focus my search and led to my current position.  It also helped me focus my writing more, take more creative risks, and generally get unstuck…and it made me become one of those people who  recommends The Artist’s Way to other people looking to shake up their creative lives.

Thus, while I am not the same stressful position I was in 2012, I could use some re-focusing, so it’s back to Julia Cameron.  Her book The Vein of Gold, like The Artist’s Way, has a series of exercises you do over several weeks.

This week, the task is to start doing morning pages, artist dates–tasks also used in The Artist’s Way.  I’ve started the morning pages, which I was still doing intermittently and I’ve grown to appreciate them again.  Morning pages are three pages of stream of consciousness writing, done by hand, every morning.  Some people think of them as a brain dump, a way of clearing out all of the junk in their head that is getting in the way of new ideas.  Others think of it as meditation.  Since I have an anthropology background, I like to think of morning pages as field notes on my mind.

There is something refreshing about committing to private journaling, for writers and researchers who write for public consumption, it is easy to start thinking of all of your writing as public and to start editing as you are writing, instead of letting go during the first draft.  It is also easy to value writing only if it is public–but private writing can be incredibly useful tool for working out ideas, processing experiences, and just taking risks.

If you haven’t tried morning pages, I recommend giving them a shot.  Even if you aren’t interested in the creativity angle, they can be useful for stress management. A few months ago, I attended a lecture by a University of Chicago neuroscientist studying the effects of journaling on stress among students. She found that the type of journaling Cameron advocates (stream of consciousness, by hand) is particularly effective for reducing stress before tests and helping students do better on their tests.

 

 

 

 

 

Truth or Lie Recap…

Am I telling the truth??

Am I telling the truth??

Truth or Lie Reading Series was delightful…heard funny and poignant stories about Marilyn Monroe, skunk-traps, and men named Chad. AND people listened to me talk about hobbits, fulfilling the dreams of 11 year old Amelia. So everything is pretty cool right now.
Check out the series if you haven’t already–first Sunday of the month at Firecat Projects.

Inner monologue: OMG, I get to be in this picture with all these great writers...act casual Aldred, ACT CASUAL...

Inner monologue: OMG, I get to be in this picture with all these great writers…act casual Aldred, ACT CASUAL…