Monday, April 21, 2014

On…Commitments and Process

I have a tendency to let commitments creep up on me. Today’s was so stealthy, it scared the s*@;t out of me.

But my word is my word. A while back, fiction writer and pal Clifford Garstang asked me to take part in a two-part “Writing Process” challenge which involved me in answering four questions about my own process. I love to talk about process—my own, my friends, my mentorsso part “A” was easy. Here goes:


Q1 What are you working on?

Two things. I finished my second novel, The Beginning Things, last fall and have been looking for a great agent. It’s been a tough hunt, and I’m resisting the "flood of query letters" approach: I want someone good...someone who fits. This weekend, I worked on line edits before sending a full manuscript to a stellar NY agency. Fingers crossed. I also have a poetry manuscript I’m shopping around: “Love, Love—all that wretched cant.” 

Q2 How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Odd question. I think too much emphasis is put on what makes our work “different.”  In fact, the agents and publishers I’m approaching want to know whom I'm chiming with rather than against. I’m not out necessarily to write something unique or zany or ground-breaking: I want to write something really good, something memorable, something that resonates with readers. If that happens to be unique, zany and ground-breaking, that’s great. What I really want, though, is to produce work that is brilliantly written, evocative, and enduring.

Q3: Why do you write what you do?

The reason I write the work I write is because it’s the only work I can write. I write in order to explore situations and questions that interest me, and often, they interest me because they are unresolved and unanswered in my own life. Fiction allows me to go back and rather than play the “I wish I’d said that” game, I get to say shit and see what happens. Fiction allows me to tell lies and win. And maybe, deep down, that’s what I really like to do.

Q4: How does your writing process work?

I have to have time and zero distraction. And I can make a distraction out of laundry. What’s working for me recently is taking myself out of my usual space. I rent cheap off-season cabins without internet or tv in state parks for a week and take my dog and no books. I try and do that three or four times a year. If I can’t get away, I clean the house, do the laundry, do the shopping, walk the dog, clear my desk…and then I sit down and work for about two hours straight. That's my limit at home. While I work, I listen to medieval madrigals: if it’s Saturday, I listen to the opera on NPR.


The second part of the challenge proved overwhelming. Cliff said I needed to find three other writers to commit to the same challenge. I duly approached writers whose work I respect…only to find that one of them had already taken the challenge and two respectfully declined the opportunity on the (valid) grounds of…lack of time/interest. So I had to find three more fellow writers to take up the cudgel.

I failed and for that, I’m sorry. I think I came late to the buffet and either the good food had been eaten or the writers were on a diet.

But I did find a visual artist—Chris Callahan—who was up for it, and I encourage you next week (04/28/14) to learn about how thecreative process spans medium, mode and genre. (So sorry, Cliff, that I ditched on this part of it all. I was amazed at how difficult it was to find a writer blogging. It seems that a year or so ago, the woods bristled with them.)

Chris's bio: “I have been writing and painting/drawing for over thirty years.  I was a contributing writer for the alternative magazine “Lightness of Being” in the early 1990s, and have had my short stories When Spirits Soars and To Ride an Autumn Mare featured in “Southern Women’s Words” as well as having contributed poetry to several anthologies.  I currently maintain the Blog “The Artist Launch”, a resource for artists to find current calls to artists as well as helpful tips on creativity and art tutorials.”

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

On...Telling Tales

Tell Tale Tit, 
Your tongue shall split, 
And all the little dicky birds 
Will have a little bit. 
A corruption of the nursery rhyme from Little Mother Goose, 1912 

When I was a kid, you had two choices: you were a Tell Tale Tit or you were silent. Tell Tale Tits, however blameless or justified in their telling, were ostracized...from the skipping circle, from the Tag game, from the cluster of cross-legged girls on the green threading daisy chains and growing up too fast. We learned how to stay silent before we learned how to blot lipstick or put on our tights without snagging them. We learned that silence keeps us in the game. 

As a novelist and poet, I am both Tell Tale and Mute. I tell tales and call them fiction. And they are fiction. They begin firm footed inside memory, but in the telling, they get harder, sharper, darker. As a poet, even in the lyric and the narrative, I can move away from the poem. “It’s just a poem,” I say. I tattle; I stay silent. 

I moved into creative nonfiction recently and took a course with Marilyn Bousquin (she is a diamond). I learned the process is much the same: you sit, you think yourself out of the now and into the then; you make yourself write it down; you sit in workshop, you take notes, you keep what works and cut the rest. 

One short piece was a gift—it arrived with all its fingers and toes and in need of just one good slap. So I slapped it, researched venues, sent it out, and the submissions gods smiled and found it a home. 

And once it was up and live, the tune began to play: “Tell tale tit, your tongue shall split…” Anne Lamott said if people wanted us to say lovely things about them, they should have been nice to us. The advice would work if I was telling on ogres and monsters. But I’m not. I’m handing over my memory of one day. But the day is not solely mine. The other players have their memories…but they’re keeping silent. I’m the Tell Tale Tit. 

It’s proving hard for me to drown out the sound of those girls singing. But I can't seem to keep my own mouth shut now I've started the telling. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

On...Starting a Project

So, I've been writing poetry--seriously writing poetry--for about thirteen years now. And I've had my successes. Ten or fifteen poems published in traditional literary magazines that I admire, and one or two taken by online sites that I like to think are stable and long term. I've had a few close calls with chapbook competitions, and I even won a poetry prize in 2011. But I have not been able to put together the hallowed forty-eight page manuscript. And without that, I have nothing to submit to prospective editors.

I'm not absolutely sure why this trips me up, but I think one of the issues is that being as compulsive and obsessive as I am, I can't seem to handle combining what I see as disparate poems, or series of poems, into a cohesive whole.

My challenge for the summer "break" from teaching is to put together a collection. I bought a 4 x 8 sheet of Homasote board; "Push pins" stick in Homasote with a satisfying "thwick." My thought is that if I can pin all my poems up there on the board, I might be able to see an order to them, a common thread that I might be able to needle through them all. I'm hoping to come up with a collection that hits--or exceeds--that forty-eight page mark.

I have the board up in my office, and it's looking very bare. My plan for the next two-and-a-half months is to write new material each morning and then edit in the afternoons. Of course, I could now commit to posting new poems and edits on line each day, but that seems somehow desperate. But a photo of the board seems like a good thing. So here she is. All naked and expectant. Let's see what happens.

Friday, March 08, 2013

On...the best job for a writer

The best job I ever had as a writer was full time undergraduate student! Great professors, great assignments, deadlines to keep me on track, plus comments and grades. I couldn't believe my fellow students were bitching. It was writer heaven.

Life as a graduate student was tougher. I had to pay the bills so I did a low residency MFA and spent my week days working as a project manager for a junk mail company and my weekends working as a poet for my MFA. I loved the weekends, but the weeks killed writing for me. Copy editing took all my words and the grind of 8-5 killed my spirit.

Now I teach. It took me two years as an adjunct criss-crossing town and teaching a stupid load, but it was worth it. In 2008, I was taken on full time to direct the writing program and tutoring services and to teach two writing courses a year.

I'm still brain dead by mid-semester, but I'm exhausted in academia (which sounds like a great title for a film). My office is full of the books I love. I have a couple of easy chairs where I sit one-on-one with students and help them navigate assignments and senior projects. I tutor reluctant writers and watch them get it one-by-one. I get to listen to opera and BBC's Radio 3 as I grade papers.

And I'm on a ten-month contract, which means I can write all summer. Oh, and my students decorate my door. It doesn't get much better, I think.

Monday, September 24, 2012

On...Salons, Connotations, and a reading on 10/19

"André's" is now "Andrea Hair Fashions"
 When I think of Salons, I think of the 1970s and Andrés Hair Salon on Watford's St. Albans Road. Stuck between a curry house and a shop that sold tacky dresses, Andrés was home to a fleet of Italian hairdressers lauded over by André himself: a tiny frantic buzz of a man with oiled black hair and forever dressed in tight black trousers and a white shirt with a pastel chiffon scarf knotted at this throat. Once a week, my mother and I escaped our drab council-house-world to visit his: she to sit under Andre’s ministrations, distain on his face, and his hands a blur as they caught her hair into a torturer’s paradise of pink plastic-and-bristle hair rollers and pins; and I to sit beneath a vacant domed dryer, the heat making me doze, hot and sticky on the vinyl-covered seats, André’s Italian accent as sharp as the scissors tucked into the front pocket of his tight trousers.

It’s a form of Salon that appears, at first glance, to have nothing in common with its cousin, the literary salon, a place where artists meet, often the home of a female patron of the arts, to share their work. The literary salon was the focus of a discussion around a picnic table outside the Stone House during July’s Stonecoast reunion where an alum shared her experiences of hosting a salon, and she encouraged us all to consider opening up our own front rooms to fellow alums from our home towns – a salon-outreach, if you like. Under the trees that day, I fantasized about my own tiny living room crammed with writers, my dog nosing from poet to proser, conversation flashing like lightning across the room. A Rustburg Movement in the making.

By the time I returned home, back to the real world of Kroger and state inspections and faculty meetings, the dream shrank a little. After all, how many poets could I get in my front room? But I held onto this ideal of community, of writer helping writer. I wanted to put on a reading of my own. Five local Stonecoast writers showcasing their work and opening up a conversation on the black art of writing and the life it magics. The result is a Literary Lounge on the 19th October at Riverviews Artspace. Riverviews isn’t my front room, but it is a front room of sorts. It’s a room where Lynchburg’s artists—visual and written—have gathered for a few years now to share their work with other artists and with those who love the arts. I think Stein would have approved.

And, as always, connections form like rain on glass. I can’t help but see the fundamentals of Stein’s salon in André’s Hair Salon on St. Albans Road—Italian artists, identifiable but different, demonstrating their artistry to an wide-open audience that sits wrapped in bright vinyl cloaks, offering up hair as raw material, everyone in the room confident in the transformative nature of art.

Friday, August 17, 2012

On…POV, Cults and Political Writing: Ellen Meeropol’s _House Arrest_

Ellen and I both graduated from USM’s Stonecoast’s MFA program. We overlapped by two residencies and each morning, we shared a van from the hotel in Freeport to the nearby Stone House. Unfortunately, I don’t believe we shared any workshops. When I heard she had converted her work-in-progress into a debut novel entitled House Arrest and that it had been snapped up by Red Hen Press, I was envious; I have a lot of time for Red Hen’s Kate Gale both as both a writer and a publisher.

We reconnected at the Stonecoast 2012 Alumni Reunion where we talked on and off about the “debut novel” process. We swapped books, and I’m pleased to share Ellen’s responses to some of the questions and thoughts that sprung from my reading of House Arrest.

Bunny: Your Bio describes you as a “literary late bloomer.” Why the delay?
Ellen: I was busy reading, working as a pediatric nurse practitioner, raising two daughters, and being a political activist. I always had ideas for stories and novels and always planned to write, someday. In my early fifties I decided it was time. I had never taken a writing course, so I started taking workshops and attending writers’ conferences. That led to a low-residency MFA program, which was the best gift I ever gave myself. Not only because I learned craft, but also because I began to take myself seriously as a writer.

Bunny: The novel is split into separate voices, but only Emily’s is presented in first person. It gives her a certain dominance and adds interest to the structure. Was that always the way of things?
Ellen: Not at all. In the first four or five drafts of the manuscript, I used multiple third person narrators and that’s how I expected the structure to continue. But I was having trouble making Emily’s character come alive; she was often overshadowed by Pippa’s voice. As a revision exercise, I tried writing Emily in first person, which is a technique I often use to dig deeper into a character, and Emily blossomed on the page. I decided to leave it that way, hoping that the decision would also indicate to the reader that despite the multiple narrative voices, House Arrest is primarily Emily’s story.

Bunny: I adore spoonerisms having grown up with a spooning father. So much so that the characters in my work-in-progress use spoonerisms as a way of broaching difficult issues. Where does your experience of spoonerisms come from?
Ellen: My husband loves word play of all sorts, but spoonerisms and puns are his favorites. I’ve lived with his Robby-isms for over 45 years and they’ve become part of my vocabulary as well. I like what you said about language games as a way of broaching difficult issues. In House Arrest, spoonerisms are a bridge between Sam and Zoe, a private and roundabout connection between father and daughter after a rocky beginning to their relationship.

Bunny: In chapter seven Emily remembers a rare specific scene from her childhood. Can you talk about your decision to cast that section in present tense?
Ellen: Flashbacks are often tricky; they can bog down a narrative. This one is critical to the ongoing story; I wrote it in present tense as a way of emphasizing its immediacy and importance in Emily’s life, even decades later. Oddly enough, I decided to leave Pippa’s central childhood memory in past tense. I can’t give you a logical reason for that: it just felt right.

Bunny: This novel bristles with absent fathers: Emily loses her father to the prison system; Pippa disowns her father after witnessing his involvement in a lynching; Tian is an absent father to all of his children; and Sam is, in some ways, a removed if not absent father. Did that motif evolve or was it a ground-floor intention?
Ellen: The absent fathers were never a plan. In fact, my writing process involves starting a project with very little planning, just a couple of characters in a situation, and no knowledge of where the story is going. This book started to grow when I read a short newspaper article about a home care nurse assigned to monitor the pregnancy of a woman in a cult. As a nurse, I was fascinated by the challenge of trying to forge a therapeutic relationship with a patient whose basic health beliefs were so different. All I knew was that the pregnant cult member would ask the nurse to do something to help her, something illegal. I did not know how the nurse would respond until I wrote about their fathers, and then the plot began to emerge.

Bunny: You have a background in nursing that is evident in the medical writing. It’s spot on, and I love that. What were the unknowns for you? How do you approach the task of research?
Ellen: I worked for years in pediatrics, with children like Zoe. In some ways, House Arrest is an homage to people with spina bifida and their families. I’ve never worked in home care though. I used my general nursing background and imagination to write those scenes, and then asked a friend who does this kind of work to read them, and correct my errors. In general I approach research in that way: first I use my imagination and write, then I research and try to correct mistakes.

Bunny: Did you ever intend to make more of the “White Hats”? When I first encountered them, I expected them to have some connection back to Pippa’s family. I think I’m pleased they didn’t. Ellen: I wasn’t sure whether or not the White Hats would connect back. When I tried writing it that way, it felt contrived, so I let it go. Life, and fiction, are often a bit messy that way.

Bunny: Emily’s parents broke the law. Emily breaks what she sees as a ridiculous law (she describes Pippa’s ankle bracelet as “that stupid ankle monitor” (112). Pippa breaks the law. Sam breaks the law eventually, sheltering the two kids from the authorities. Even Gina bends it a little. Can you talk a little about what you, the author, think about the rules they break?
Ellen: I’m very interested in social justice activism, particularly how it affects families and children, but I did not set out to write about it. My purpose wasn’t to tell people how to think about breaking the law, or what I think about it. If that were the case, I’d write personal essays or letters to the editor instead of fiction. So I was somewhat surprised when the issue of breaking the law in the service of justice emerged as a central theme, one that is echoed by several characters, as you point out. Surprised and pleased. I think fiction can provoke us to think about hard questions and ethical dilemmas, through characters and their experiences.

Bunny: In a tense scene between Anna and Emily, Emily refers to Zoe as “our” child. That sense of a shared child, for me, echoes the idea of the shared children in Tian’s household. Is there an intentional parallel there?
Ellen: I seem to be emerging here as an unintentional writer! The parallel between the two families wasn’t planned, per se. But one of the things I love about writing fiction is the way the brain, in that “writerhead” state of dreamy concentration, retrieves all sorts of material from one’s past. I lived in a small commune in my early 20s and raised our daughters in a close-knit community, so it didn’t come as much of a surprise that these alternative families would show up in my work.

Bunny: What next, Elli? And if you’re working on another novel, did the idea spring while you were writing House Arrest, or did you need a creative break between finishing one and beginning another?
Ellen: Ideas for the next novel are always simmering in the back of my brain. By the time House Arrest was under contract with Red Hen Press, I had started writing the next novel. That manuscript is now finished and in the hands of my agent. I’m working now on a new project that features the children of House Arrest, beginning a decade after that book ends. Of course, I don’t know where this next one is going yet, but I love the opportunity to hang out with Zoe and the twins again.

Bunny: Can you share a hint or tip with a writer who might be struggling to get a debut novel into print?
Ellen: Don’t give up. Keep revising and improving the manuscript. Keep querying agents and small presses. Keep learning and reading and writing. That’s what I tell myself…


Ellen Meeropol began writing fiction in her fifties, after a career as a nurse practitioner. Publishers Weekly gave her debut novel HOUSE ARREST a starred review, calling it “thoughtful and tightly composed, unflinching in taking on challenging subjects and deliberating uneasy ethical conundrums.” Ellen holds an MFA from the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine. Her short stories and essays have been published in Bridges, Pedestal, Rumpus, Portland Magazine, The Drum, Shaking Like a Mountain, Beyond the Margins, and Women’s Times.

House Arrest is published by Red Hen Press

Friday, August 10, 2012

On...Playing Jenga

In the summer, my pal LG and I get together before the sun gets hot to take our dogs for a walk along the Black Water Creek trail in Lynchburg. We walk indian-file along the trail, her dog well-behaved and quietly nosing through the underbrush, mine barking like Cerberus at anyone who dares to share the path. Our walks are good on so many levels: LG and I get some exercise, the dogs get some exercise, and Bubba gets to bark a lot. But I think the most valuable part of these hour long treks is that we talk about writing (and sometimes about teaching).

Maybe it's the nature of our walk - that we're moving and not sprawling in soft chairs at Starbucks, that we're one-behind-the-other and not face-to-face, that it's hot and we walk fast--that forms our conversations, but whatever the reason, we tend to hit the highlights--what's working, what's troubling us, strategies (for students, for writers, for ourselves in our lives). There's not a lot of opportunity for fluff - we're walking, we're hot and there are dogs to herd!