Friday, April 27, 2012

Mental Space for Rent

Ever since you first picked up Dorothy Parker or Jack Kerouac and fell in love with the writer’s life, you’ve had an image in your head of what it means to be “a writer.” Probably that image includes some vice (sex, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, luxury yachts) that you deserve because of all the time you spend writing. Because almost without fail, the image that comes to mind when you think “writer” is someone all alone in a room somewhere. A quiet room. With only writerly stuff in it and a means of composition. Books. A nostalgic typewriter. Possibly a window, but if so, a window that opens onto a peaceful scene.

When was the last time a parent was alone in any room devoid of kid detritus?

You do not think of a writer as a person who has to make non-peanut snacks for fifteen kids and then a doctor’s appointment which will entail at least one shot before sitting down with her manuscript. You don’t think of a National Book Award winner setting an alarm to ensure he/she picks up Coraline or Jeremy from soccer camp no later than 3:25pm. Definitely not the image that comes to mind. But that’s what we do. Every damn day.

How the hell do we accomplish this?

Let’s just say there’s often a hero spouse in the picture. Let’s say someone is willing for YOUR career to do all that daily stuff, at least on occasion so a few sentences can be strung together and called a paragraph. Let’s say that’s true for about 40% of parent authors. (could be more/less depending on divorces, remarriages, business trips, and spousal reluctance) … it could also be a mom or paid nanny/sitter/day care that takes over the parenting for a while—

There is still the issue of mental space.

After all, writing a cohesive short story (not to mention a whole novel!) requires a certain amount of focus, wouldn’t you say? Focus that is not razor sharp when Coraline and Jeremy are fighting with the caregiver in the next room over whose turn it actually is to choose the TV show. Focus that can be ripped from you even with a stray thought; oh crap, tomorrow is Coraline’s share day at school and I promised to ask Joe to loan out his old fireman’s helmet and I totally forgot. Focus that is utterly destroyed when your cellphone buzzes and the caller ID says “Jeremy’s School.”

“We’re so sorry,” says an administrator when you pick up. “Jeremy threw up in the lunchroom today. He seems fine now, but our policy is to have the parents keep him home for 24 hours after an incident like this.”  Say goodbye to the next 24 hours, since your spouse has already told you she’s got a meeting at ten tomorrow with the CEO of her firm.

So that’s our lives. We know it. Why am I bothering to blog about it?

Because there are plenty of writers who have managed to put out amazing novels despite having kids at home. People who nonetheless pick up their kids from soccer and who sit with them when they have fevers.  People like Jennifer Egan, who, oh I dunno, wrote novels that were good enough to win Pulitzer Prizes.

When she wrote A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan was helping to put food on the table and pay for soccer classes for two boys. That prize came to her because the quality of her work was fantastic—not the other way around. We often laud writers’ work after they win prizes: but every last one of them was not a Pulitzer Prize winning author before they won that prize. (members of Pen Parentis can log onto the website and hear a podcast of her discussing the book BEFORE she won the prize... it's astonishing.)

It is vital to remember that the prize-winning authors that we so admire had to carve out time to slave over their writing, same as you. 

In the next blog, I’ll talk about some specific ways that published novelists who are also parents have carved out enough mental space to get some real writing done.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Want help? Give it. Part 2.

Face it, there’s a reason you’re not getting an agent: it’s not because your writing sucks. If your writing sucked, you wouldn’t be getting encouraging emails from agents saying they are sure it will find a market at some point. You would be getting only standard boring-as-hell, form-rejection letters that probably don’t have your name on them (if you are getting only this sort of rejection, quickly go take a writing workshop or writing class and find out why—the problem is likely technical and easily fixed)—but no, YOU are getting rejection letters that feel like apologies for not wanting a second date after a great first one… Short little half-apologies with lame excuses. Often it’s that your subject matter isn’t easily marketable, that your novel isn’t easy to categorize, that it doesn’t fall within typical guidelines, or just that the agent ‘didn’t connect’ with the material. I mean, if you were writing a zombie detective novel, or a torso-baring typical romance novel with a main character named Delphinia who at 27 is still a virgin, it would already be in print. But then you, dear author, wouldn’t be you.

Now the advice I’m about to give is time consuming, so listen up. I’m talking about FRIENDS here. I’m talking about people that you went to grad school with and held their hair as they puked and didn’t post the photos to FB (okay there wasn’t FB back then, but whatever) – I’m talking people who went to your kid’s first birthday party and who you swore to be friends with forever. Don’t let one-sided success screw up a good friendship. Just don’t!

I am NOT talking about the crazy guy from the MFA program who keeps friending you from other accounts because you sat next to him one day and were nice. I’m not talking about the crazy bitch from day care who keeps haranguing you to have a playdate because she has just written her fifth novel manuscript and wants you to blurb it (oh wait, crap, that’s me, nevermind) – and I’m certainly not talking about anyone that you don’t actually LIKE.

But that does leave a handful of friends. Even writers, you know who you are, have friends.

So what can we do to help each other? Well, you’ve done the first step: you’re seeking community. We really CAN help each other. It’s just that the one-on-one “here’s my agent’s cellphone number” help isn’t going to happen. Here’s a list of what we can do for each other:
  • 1)   Read your friend’s books. (yes, some of them will suck. But just the fact that you bothered to put them into your long reading queue will mean SO MUCH to your friend that the next time his agent asks if he knows someone who writes X and you do, your name might come up.) – this goes for published and NOT published books. If you have three novels under your hat and your best friend from grad school is still struggling, well, do the shlub a favor and read his MS. And be honest: tell him, you need to take a writing class (he will hate you, but he won’t hate you more than if you keep NOT reading his MS). And vice versa: “I’m working on my own novel” is no reason not to read that friend’s book. Skim it. Read pieces. It’s not nice not to. If it’s awful, be gleeful in private and plan how yours will be better.
  • 2)   Review that book wherever you’re a member, but keep the review really short (it was a great read! Or I loved this book!) – long reviews for friend’s books seem nepotistic. But do give your friend five stars if they deserve five stars: that’s just being nice. Plus (added nepotistic bonus) they might thank you in their blog which has 20,000 followers. And if the book really sucked, just skip the stars and say what you liked “great character of Pauline on page 245!” And published author-dude and dudettes: if you do read an MS that was great, guess what? Your 20K followers might want to know that too. You don’t have to be embarrassed to say “I just read a friend’s unpublished novel and really enjoyed it; I hope they find an agent soon!”
  • 3)   GO TO YOUR FRIEND’S EVENTS! It’s so important to stay in touch, and if you are the only one who showed up at Barnes & Noble on that rainy Saturday, it will mean so much.  I learned this from my days as an actor: I can’t tell you how many auditions I got (mind you, it wasn’t jobs, no one hires you without trying you out: not in theater and not in books) – just because I showed up at a friend’s show. And it’s really good for YOU to go to these events: you’ll meet other authors. You’ll meet your friend’s agent. You’ll be able to network. Maybe you’ll meet your next editor, or at least know one editor’s name when you send your book out. Hell, just leaving the house for something other than a milk-run is a bonus these days.

These are super-easy things to do. Well, okay, the events thing might require a babysitter, but in general, what I’m saying is that we are a COMMUNITY. It is important to stand up for your friends. And yeah, Stephen King might not really notice when you show up, but he’s a freak of nature anyway. You went to high school with him and were best mates and now you saw him at a live event? Blog about it, cc-his alumni email address or tag him on the Facebook note, and maybe, just maybe, he will reply. Which will earn you a “like” on your site, which will lead to another blog entry, which will gain you a few Twitter followers, &etc…

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Guest Blogger: FRANK HABERLE

We interrupt this two-part blog entry to bring you a quick note from Frank Haberle, last year's Pen Parentis Writing Fellow! (It's the last few days to submit to the 2012 Fellowship! Postmark deadline is April 18th – so get on it! Take it away, Frank!): 

Winning the 2011 Pen Parentis fellowship last spring came with a world of rewards, not least of which comes when I’m helping my kids with their homework, and they question my answers. “Excuse me?” I get to snort at them. “Who’s the Pen Parentis fellow here?” I have yet to try it with my boss, or my wife, but this line has such a nice ring to it!

More seriously, entering this contest, and winning the award has jump-started my efforts to balance parenting, writing and working on a number of levels:

1) It’s provided an instant support network. Pen Parentis is a supportive, encouraging community of writers who understand the unique challenges of those of us who don’t want to give up our writing while, at the same time, continuing to do the best we can as parents and providers.

2) It’s a source of inspiration.  Pen Parentis brings in a diverse, accomplished group of writers who fought through the minefields of raising children and keeping their writing going. Attending the readings has been an inspiration in itself, but the panel discussions that follow unveil really valuable bits of wisdom.

3) The reading was amazing. One part of the award was getting to read my story alongside two established, wonderful writers (Rebecca Wolff and Sarah Gardener) in an amazing setting, in the beautiful Libertine lounge in downtown Manhattan.

4) The honorarium has been hugely helpful. It created a little cushion of funding that has helped me rationalize entering occasional contests or paying for a babysitter when my wife and I want to go to a reading. In a forward-thinking way, it’s like a contract-I have felt like I am obligated to create time to write, like I’ve been writing much more consistently as a result.

The Pen Parentis Fellowship has been meaningful in two ways:  it’s recognition for a job well done, and it’s a mandate to take your creative side seriously- even though the chaos of diapers and laundry and dishes and homework help may be encroaching from all sides.  It’s been a real blessing, not only to have won this award, but to have become a member of this community. 

Thanks, Frank! We hope all of you consider entering this year - here are this year's guidelines! As an added bonus, you can have a glance at Frank's bio and follow links to online stories of his...We are so proud to have Frank as a Fellow! He's a jolly good one! 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Want help? Give it. Part 1.

Authors in grad school often make pacts like the ones in dweeby marriage movies “whichever of us gets published first will pull the other up by our coattails” (okay marriage movies have them swearing they’ll marry each other, but just go with the bloggish half-metaphor….) – point is, once one of the pair gets their long suffering manuscript to print, the other is usually left hanging. Wondering: Why isn’t he taking me to lunch with his agent?  does he hate me? -- and friends, I’m here to tell you what he’s actually doing is spending precious writing time staring at his guilty face in the mirror.

Because it doesn’t work that way.

You have an agent, your relationship is that of the young blonde to the dying billionaire – (yeah, I need to coin a phrase for really bad metaphors invented by people who blog) – as a writer with a new agent, you know you are the flavor of the moment but if you don’t put out and put out good, your agent is definitely moving on. So unless your friend is blonde and looks exactly like you  i.e. has an attractive list of followers and writes what you write (oh crud, I am hating this metaphor more and more) you can’t just make introductions.

“My agent only takes on nonfiction” is sadly, in most cases, true.  It’s hard to do anything beyond asking “Are you taking on new literary writers? I know a great…” before your agent’s eyes gloss over. Not that you shouldn’t try. Just like trying to set up that friend who is dying “at last” to get married.

God help me with these metaphors. (Bletaphors? Blogophores? Blechophores?) I’m going to stop while I’m ahead. Next week, I promise, I’ll give you an actual list of WAYS you can help each other out: whether you are the friend who is already published or the friend who is still looking for the agent. I have three ways you can –and should – actually help each other.

For now: write well!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Can you transition well?

Transitions.  I can't do them.

How the heck do successful writers who are parents manage to transition from working on their novel to being the person who has to pick up the kid at school on time?

Here's the scenario: I'm hard at work on a section that has been impossible, a scene in which this not-really-out gay kid turns away from the guy who ought to become his lover and instead does what he thinks society wants - he walks away. It's a scene that has been impossible to write, it's painful, it's obviously the wrong thing to do...but today, after gazillions of cups of coffee and utterly ignoring all the laundry in my home, I finally got it to work. Sort of. At least, it began to work.

and then the timer on the microwave beeped, reminding me that I had to pick up my daughter from Superhero Club in 20 minutes.

Is that fair?

I couldn't drop the scene. Heart pounding and knowing that she would level me with all the guilt tripping she learned in Kindergarten, I typed faster. I wanted the scene on paper (ha, paper! in memory, I guess) and so I zoomed through a skeletal mockup.

but here's the trade: now it's not pressing at me. It's gone. Out. It's no longer urgent. The next time I get to go back to it, I don't know if I'll be in the same place, creatively. It's a horrible loss--or perhaps--a potential loss that could be horrible.

So how, people of the blogosphere, do people deal with this? Ideas? Set the timer earlier? Later? Don't beat yourself up? How?