Friday, August 31, 2012

New page in Salon history

A lot of you who follow this blog, I count as my friends - and as such, I want to take a little break from trying to inspire all writers who are parents and just sit back with a cup of coffee and thank you for everything you've ever done for me. You know who you are: I emailed or called you or you replied to a desperate Tweet or FB post and when you found me struggling to get my ass over whichever fence was currently in my way, you gave me either the shove or the swift kick in the rear to get me the rest of the way over. I'm being all facetious but that's my nature - so let me drop the eternal sarcasm and tell you seriously and with all warmth: thank you for not giving up on me.

Thanks to your belief, the Pen Parentis Literary Salons were picked up by Andaz. Starting on the Second Tuesday of September (which happens to land smack-dab on my least favorite day of the year, thanks to the fact that since 2001 I've lived one block from the madness) and going until May from 7pm -9pm, please join me at the Andaz. They have a spectacular bar and food menu - my favorite drink is the 'corpse-revivier' - and have been so welcoming and excited to host the Salons that I am shaking my head wondering why I never left the last million times they invited me.

For you, because you are so lovely, here's the messy story. Ready?

In late 2008, I was looking for a place to house a salon that Arlaina Tibensky and I were vaguely considering. We thought it would be inspiring to hear from a bunch of authors who had somehow managed to find time to write despite having little kids. I had date night with my husband at a "new Todd English" restaurant that had just opened nearby. It was overbooked, but the hostess was happy to let us eat "in the library" look at the floor-to-ceiling books and I knew Pen Parentis had found its home. It took a little negotiating to convince the GM of the place that we weren't a book club, but once he got the idea he was grudgingly interested in giving us a trial. We? Completely in love with our new space.

Once we had a location, we aimed higher: thought it would be great to hear from people who were able to actually manage to publish something great despite having kids. "Great" was loosely defined as: we liked it, or had heard of it and really wanted to read it. Luckily Arlaina and I have wonderfully divergent taste in books, so that she'd invite people I hadn't heard of and I suggested people she was wary of (our earliest meetings were fairly hilarious). What stunned us was the overwhelmingly positive response we got from everyone: even people like Jonathan Lethem, who we had tracked up to Maine where he has a secluded writing cabin, were intrigued by our idea. And others were positively gracious; Jennifer Egan and Deborah Copaken Kogan not only read for us but also gave us names of friends who had kids, who were also great writers. Arlaina and I were astonished by how many of the writers who were successful had a small tight community of other writer-parents to hang out with. Our salons mattered to people. Each time we'd present a pair of authors, at least one of them would tell us they ached for this sort of a group when their kids were really little.

Pen Parentis grew up around that idea. Building a community of writers that are parents has been a spectacular job - and social media has grown up with us, so that now we have not only this blog, but a Twitter feed (@PenParentis) and a Facebook page ( as well as our website. We just started a private LinkedIN group to allow for the kinds of intimate discussions that happen all the time at our salons -- if you or anyone you know is a writer with kids - please feel free to request membership! It's free and we'd love a huge active group!

Sorry - got off story!!  I was telling you about our move.  So over the years we learned that the location was a property that was used to train new managers. Over the three years, I met something in the line of seven restaurant managers, three events managers, four sales managers, and at least four GMs. Each time I called it seemed someone had moved on or was about to be replaced. It was a little exhausting to explain, over and over, that no, we were not a book club. Not even a "high-end" book club. But the library kept us. Brass railings, candles, and most importantly, books that someone lovingly chose - all of them were books a real human being might read. All the way to the ceiling.

Then this summer rolled around. We had our first community-wide children's lit festival. 175 people turned out. It was magic. I called up our space to make sure we were on track for September only to discover the whole restaurant had closed. The new GM was in the middle of ripping out the bookshelves. He told me I would be delighted with the results - it would be a lovely country Italian place. 

Like Harry's Italian across the street? I asked, or more like the expensive Italian around the corner?
He was ripping out the books. I felt justified in being a little bit mean.

But no hard feelings. I knew right where to go. The GM of Andaz Wall Street was constantly wondering if I was ready for a new location. I had always passionately loved his property: they brought in a farmers' market, opened an outdoor bier garden, their staff had always been so lovely to me. I loved going to Wall and Water to eat, it's by far one of the best restaurants downtown. The bar downstairs is sleek and spectacular. Really, all Andaz hotels are a vision, they just feel special the second you walk in. And how great was it to finally find a GM who loved the idea of hosting a series of literary salons. They showed me a lovely space with floor to ceiling windows - showed me where they would set up a bar. They were gracious and welcoming and excited to work with us to promote the event. It was a whole new partnership.

So now I share this excitement with you. We've worked hard to book gorgeous writers for this upcoming season. Our Fellowship winner, Sarah Gerkensmeyer is flying in from Fredonia to accept her award and read her winning story. September 11, 7pm -9pm - come to the second floor of 75 Wall Street (in the Andaz Hotel) and let us entertain you. You deserve it. You know you do.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Here's what happens to me: I'm writing a novel and it's great, the idea is as enticing as cupcakes, and I'm enjoying getting the words on the page. It swims along for about 150 pages. Then: crash. I take walks. I find myself wondering if the plot of this Adam Sandler movie I just hated might be a better twist than the one I'd thought of, I read Murakami and have lots of green tea, I eat chocolates (I do that anyway)... point is, writing becomes work. And it never stops being work after that. Sure, I'll have breakthroughs, and I'll write for a while in spurts, but it's never again the easy, fun, excitement of the initial ride.

And then the editing starts and the work is actually tough and painful. Bye-bye, two-pages of fantastic writing about cupcakes.

There are no rules in literary fiction, maybe that's why it's so satisfying to write it. But because there are no rules you can't possibly know when "the flowchart" is ready to hit your boss' desk. Why can't I leave the cupcakes in? Proust would. But here's what happens to me: I miss the fun. A week of this hard work goes by and I get a great idea for a new project...or...I write a blog post. Oh those blogs. And emails. And articles we get paid to write. And random other piecemeal work (anyone passed out free samples for money before? I have...)

I want to introduce you to @YuviZalkow a writer-with-kids who I think has a great blog. He's doing the hard thing and giving up making his hilarious videos for a specific period of time in order to work on his writing. We can all take a lesson from him.

(now please forgive me if the link takes you to a later blog-posting. the video i want to share with you is embedded in a blog entry called Project Mismanagement. it's four minutes long, and it raises a great question. What has to go?) 

Let's think of our lives as a novel we have to edit. He does it by making a pie chart, but I suggest creating a plot outline where you start as a writer who has kids and you end as a writer with kids who has a book deal.

Prioritize. Figure out where you want your life-plot to go. Edit down the chapters that don't help.

If you have artistic tendencies and want to email any of your charts to me, I'd be happy to post them.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

fifteen minutes of euphoric play

Is there ever a time when we writers are working on only one thing at a time? Yes, of course, there's the big piece-- amassing a collection of stories, hammering outlines to a novel-- but somehow, creatively speaking, that big piece becomes "work" and you seem to lose (or I do, anyway) the fun of creativity.

When you come across a writing prompt "Win $2000 for a sentence that describes eating bacon!" Doesn't your mind just explode with ideas? If you're like me, there is no writing surface that is safe at that moment. Not that I plan to actually sign up for the bacons-r-us mailing list and enter the sweepstakes (it's never merit-based, it's always a random drawing, sorry) -- but the idea that words are valuable, that I can think of them quickly and it can be FUN. Well, that's why I got into writing in the first place.

because I love words.

but let's get back to the subject: buried. Of course we all have personal responsibility (sometimes, you just gotta shower) and we have interpersonal responsibilities (you also have to ensure that your kids sometimes shower) and we likely have financial responsibilities (running away from the mail man takes precious second of every day, and even then, those bills keep coming--darn federal agencies and their persistence) ... and all those take time.

But let's not complain about our awesome lives.

Instead: let's look at how buried we are in our creative work. Have any of you got only one creative project? Do you devote yourself wholeheartedly to it--treating it like a job, getting it done in manageable chunks, checking off boxes on a to-do list? Do you have an end goal like you would in an office (you can go home, Mr. Smith, when the flowchart is on my desk)?

It's certainly possible to write that way. Am I for it? I don't know. It seems that it would be "taking writing seriously" -- which is important.  But goal-oriented writing often has a lot of the magic crushed out of it. There has to be a session, somewhere, when you get inspired and it's FUN. There has to be at least a moment here or there where you aren't a slave to your flow-chart and instead your work comes easily. Doesn't there?

And we have to have playtime with our kids as well as make them take showers. And what's hard hard hard not to do as parents is cutting playtime. After all, the shower-fight is more important, right? And the writing is obviously important.

Here's my radical idea: cut the boring, slave-driven part of writing instead. Are you totally jacked on a scene that isn't working, and you have got to think about it? Instead of staying holed-up in the coffee shop while your sitter plays with your three-year old, make an unscheduled visit to the little tyke. Pop in and play a game. Find your kid's euphoria and try to recall your own. We've all been there. Then, before the tears begin, vanish back to your office-of-choice. Helga can deal with the tears (it's her job) and you might be able to ride the wave of happy-place back to working on that scene.

Worst case, you've spent fifteen minutes of actual quality time with your kid and you're still as stuck as you were before. Best case, you've spent fifteen minutes of actual quality time with your kid and while playing, you came up with the idea that broke the wall. Either way: it's fifteen minutes.

And even the New York Times agrees with me. Well, one crazy writer does, anyway. Do you?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Announcing a winner

Like most of the rest of the world (at least the ones who still have electricity) I have been following the Olympics.  It has been brutal to watch the few judging glitches: Japan regaining a few points in gymnastics and bumping the Ukraine down a notch, or the Greek racisim disqualification bumping people up ("I got this Bronze thanks to someone else's racism.") or this newest badminton fiasco.

Having just awarded a Fellowship (results posted here), I can tell you - judging feels like the heaviest weight. Not just the back-and-forth gut-aching feeling of watching the USA gymnasts celebrate unexpected gold on split screen with the Russians and their unexpected loss. But also the knowledge that hundreds of armchair critics are narrowing their eyes, wondering why this one, not that one. Prizes do matter. They give you energy, they tie you to history. They are the world's approval of your somehow otherwise ridiculous decision to devote yourself to something that will never earn you a zillion dollars...

Michael Cunningham (a mentor and ex-writing teacher of mine) summed it up beautifully in his New Yorker piece recently (there's a Part 2) -- he was on the Pulitzer committee and even there, the choices were nearly impossible. Everyone has talent. Everyone has at least one spot where you want to tell them "oh, couldn't you have just gotten this one thing a little better?" But it is your job to make that choose and so you so. In the end of it all, you feel like they are all your children - you are so proud of them all, despite their flaws. It's strange how connected you become.

Here is why we at Pen Parentis strictly adhere to blind judging--I can't imagine if we, like those judges, knew where the entries were from and what the life story of the athlete/writer was as we tried to value their work.

Really, isn't a few sentences by a formerly illiterate 40 yr old as much of an accomplishment as twenty lovely pages by a trust fund kid who just finished an all-expesnses paid ride to Harvard?

When you judge quality, you aren't judging the process.

Maybe we should. Maybe there should be medals for "achievement" in sports - and in writing.

But actually, no. Everyone has a struggle. Even that trust-fund kid has to get his head around reality and put words on a page. Discipline is universal. Those kids at the Olympics all had to work to get on that team. And so it is with us. If our story is waiting in the slush pile of some editor's desk, we are already in the running. We have already jumped the first hurdle - now we are in the race.

Keep running, folks. Just keep running.

Wanted to add - Books Ahoy! was a grand success thanks to you people. I want to warmly thank our authors who all read beautifully, Bluestockings Books, FaceArt by Melissa, Church Street School for Music and Art, our fantastic volunteer staff including the lovely Arlaina Tibensky and Kaitlin Sancoucie, and I'd especially like to thank The Lilac for hosting. We had 176 people attend the event. That's just...olympic.  Thanks to all who came. Photos here: