Writing Life

The Middle Stage

I am working on being more comfortable with uncertainty. And there is no better exercise for such work than being in the middle of an essay. Many things in my life, take parenting, I cannot give up. Writing, as a whole, is something that I must do in order to be more fully myself. But one essay, that's something I could abandon. I could walk away from this particular pile of pieces and move on to something new and fresh. Staying with this essay requires flexing a different set of muscles, finding my ability to stay in the midst of something through which the path is still uncut.

I thought this piece was close to being done. I thought I would cut apart the draft and insert the newest sections into the essay; I thought they would complete the circuit. But sitting among the segments, I discover that I am smack dab in the middle of the process. I am no longer sure where to begin the essay or how it should end. I have discarded sections that used to be key to its integrity. I am so overwhelmed  that I lay down and drift off for a few minutes. Then I sit up and sip coffee and stare at the slips and slivers of paper that refuse to yield. Minutes grind by. My back begins to ache. My coffee cools in its cup. And then I remember what this silence, this elongated moment seeming to lack forward motion, has to offer. 

Potential. The potential to push beyond the borders of what I already know. I stretch my limbs and begin again.



"Motherhood on the Page" Workshop in May

In May, I will be teaching another session of my workshop, "Motherhood on the Page: Read and Write the Mothering Experience." Online registration is now available.

Motherhood is a broad topic, but what does it mean to you? Learn to express your particular motherhood experience—be it joy, ambivalence, depression, or anything in between—in this writing workshop, which will address both the challenges and benefits of writing as a mother. First, we will examine literary strategies employed in nonfiction and poetry by writers like Louise Erdich, Anne Lamott, and Beth Ann Fennelly. Then we will explore those techniques on the page through writing prompts. Writers of all levels are welcome.

Saturday, May 14, 2016, 1:30-4:30 p.m., Phinney Neighborhood Center, Room 3

Cost: Before April 14th - $35      After April 14th - $45

Feedback from Former Participants of "Motherhood on the Page"
"Thank you! Much needed space to reconnect with writing."
"It gave me a good platform to start writing."
"Thoughtful, safe space for exploring."
"The writing exercises were wonderful! They helped me open my writing side back up."

Latest and Greatest - September 2015

September was a lively month for me as a teacher, a writer, and a reader. I taught my first workshop, "Motherhood on the Page: Read and Write the Mothering Experience," on Saturday, September 26th. The nine women in attendance jumped into writing and sharing with gusto; they revealed insights about themselves and their relationship to motherhood and read some striking writing on the myriad conflicts of motherhood. The participants exceeded my expectations by deciding to form an ongoing writing group to elicit new work and share their experiences! I am excited to see what develops at the next workshop on October 17th at the Columbia Library.  I learned in September that my essay, "Notes on Machinery," won Third Place in the Northern Colorado Writers 2015 Personal Essay/Creative Nonfiction contest, judged by BK Loren. The essay, originally published in The Louisville Review, will appear in Pooled Ink: Celebrating the 2015 NCW Contest Winners (due out by December 1, 2015).

Perhaps the most galvanizing event of the month was the reading given by Saul Williams through Seattle Arts and Lectures. Performing poems from his new book, US (a.), which also includes two plays, Williams was an electric and outspoken performer, challenging himself and the audience to question the hypocrisy, inequality, and indifference of our culture. He pitched his poems to the audience at a fast pace, the rhythms complex and compelling and contagious. My mind enjoyed the delicious struggle of trying to keep up, to make sense and how, just after the final beat of the poem, the meaning would coalesce and pop.

With my oldest child now in school, I return to the comforting structure of the school year calendar, which I could never quite shed after completing my own education. I am grateful to begin the year with momentum gained over the last few weeks.

The Benefits of Republishing Your Work

I have a confession to make. I love the search for submission opportunities: perusing the calls online and in the back of writing magazines to find the right venues for my essays and work by writer friends. Each opportunity hastily scribbled in the margins or in my datebook represents a possibility—of publication, of an editor or reader becoming familiar with my work, even of rejection that opens the door to acceptance somewhere else One particular thing for which I look, thanks to the advice of poet Denise Calvetti Michaels, is ways to republish or repurpose my essays. Why? Republication naturally occurs for more established writers as their work is reprinted in anthologies, writing guides, and textbooks. However, submitting for republication is great strategy for writers early in their career with a small body of finished work because it enables you to leverage that work for maximum outcome. Not only will you gain a publication credit and exposure to new readers, you may also garner payment, an award, or a unique benefit like a reading, a meeting with an editor, or participation in a juried workshop.

By submitting previously published work to journals, anthologies, and contests, I have achieved the following:

  • Online reprint of my essay "Bounty and Burden" in Redux, including the chance to explore and share my writing process in "The Story Behind the Essay"
  • Inclusion of "Bounty and Burden" in an exhibition of literary and visuals artists in Washington State
  • Honorable Mention for "A Grief Unraveled" in the 38th New Millenium Nonfiction Award competition

You may find that previously published work has a better chance of acceptance, possibly because it has already been worked over by an editor. My acceptance rate for previously published work is above 40%, much higher than my standard rate of 5%. This is particularly reassuring when you are paying a submission fee.

Consider both literary journals and anthologies for republication opportunities. They will state, even in a brief call for submissions, that they will consider previously published work, and this will also appear in their full submission guidelines. As with any submission, you will want to familiarize yourself with the publication before submitting to make sure your work aligns with their aesthetic and that you will be pleased to be among the contributors.

Most literary journals do not accept previously published work, but it is worth looking into those that do and why. Some journals have made it part of their mission to give quality work a fresh audience. This is particularly true with the advent of legitimate online publishing as readers of online and paper journals can be different audiences.

The online journal Redux publishes work—poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction—that has only appeared in print. Editor Leslie Pietrzyk began the journal in 2011 to save poems and prose from the "dungeon of page 64 in a lovely—but now forgotten—issue of a literary journal." Each writer published on Redux gets the opportunity to explore the piece anew in a brief "Story Behind the Work" section, of which Pietryzyk is particularly proud because several writers have told her that writing it "made them reconsider their work in interesting ways." Additionally, she is grateful that Redux allows her to "'meet' many writers I wouldn't have known otherwise, from their work and then from subsequent social media," reinforcing how republication also leads to genuine connection between writers separated by geography or genre.

Another journal that solicits previously published work is New Millenium Writings, a print journal in publication since 1996. As part of its mission to champion new and emerging writers, New Millenium Writings will consider work that has been published online or in a journal with a circulation of less than 5,000. Associate Publisher Brent Carr shares the rationale behind these guidelines

We understand that many writers, particularly those trying to get established, may accept publication online or in a small journal for little to no monetary compensation, as a means of getting their works and name out into the writing community. Although this exposure is valuable, and often necessary, we believe this shouldn't preclude them from receiving awards and recognition from a more established publication.

It is also important to recognize that, ultimately, editors are in the publishing business because they love reading, sharing, and publicizing great work even if, in this case, another editor discovered it first.

I have included a list of respected journals who champion or consider previously published work:

  • Hippocampus Magazine - "prefers previously unpublished work, but will entertain submissions that have appeared elsewhere"
  • New Millenium Writings
    • "Previously published material is welcome if online only or had a circulation of under 5,000"
    • Upcoming deadline is June 17th
  • Redux
    • Work must have appeared in a print journal - see Submissions Guidelines for details
    • Submissions are currently closed but may open later this year. I recommend that you subscribe to the journal (free) for notification of the open period.
  • Sequestrum

    • Editors Reprint Award 2015 - "two lucky pieces will get a second breath of life normally reserved for ultra-exclusive anthologies"
    • Deadline is tomorrow, April 30th
  • The Sun - "We’re willing to read previously published works, though for reprints we pay only half our usual fee."

Anthologies and Other Opportunities Many anthologies do consider previously published work. You will want to research the editors and the press (if one has already agreed to publish) to make sure it is the right fit for your work and your career, but anthologies are another great place to publish work and start building an audience. Editors often develop a comprehensive marketing campaign, so you may gain more exposure.

I am also always intrigued by contests that do not offer publication, instead providing financial award and/or a fellowship, a teaching opportunity, or a public reading. These are practical building blocks to a career, and, if your work is selected for one of these honors, you know that you have an award-winning essay to submit to literary journals for publication.

Additional Benefit and Etiquette Another benefit of pursuing republication opportunities is that it keeps you in the submission game even if you have no new work to submit. As a personal practice, I like to have at least one thing under consideration at all times. I have the spent the last year working on new essays that I hope to finish soon; however, I still have two pieces under consideration, one for an anthology and another for a reprint award.

When you announce on your website or through social media that your work has been reprinted, remember to highlight the journal which originally published the piece. On your website, link to the journal. Also, notify the original journal as the editors may choose to share the good news on their blog.

When pursued judiciously, republication offers benefits to both literary journals and to writers. Please let me know about other republication opportunities as well any success you have with the above journals.

The Mechanisms of Making

One of the central obsessions in my life is making. This has been true since I was a child. Whether it was jewelry, hatboxes, dollhouse furniture, or three-layer chocolate cakes, I delighted in the process of slowly combining basic materials into a new, formed whole. Now, with children of my own, I still make time to knit and sew. For me, there is no better cure for the daily chaos than a freshly pressed seam--the clean join of two separate pieces of fabric, ragged edges tucked behind. Seam

A year ago, I realized that handcraft is not only my balm but my creative metaphor. Examining the concrete details of making and the made provides a side entrance into difficult emotional territories like grief, doubt, and fear. The safe distance of metaphor allows insight into memories that had never yielded to my pen. And now I have begun to claim writing as a form of handcraft; with my hands, I write longhand, I type. Wielding orange-handled scissors, I dissect my drafts into constituent parts, which I rearrange over and over again, like fabric shapes for a quilt, until the pieces move together as a whole. Writing is a process of wresting from within a hole created by loss or fear and making of it an exterior object, a thing now separate from the writer and, maybe more importantly, accessible to the reader.

I have been fortunate to find other writers who are also fascinated by the creative process, whose need to talk and write about it is intimately connected to the writing itself. One such writer is Diane Rhodes, the author of the delightful food and travel blog, Getting Greens with Zuzu. In lovely prose supported by lush images, she explores farmer's markets, food, and the memories and insights inspired by her search. I was delighted to find mention of my work in her most recent post, "Making Sense Through Soup."

To try this method for yourself, make a list of your favorite activities or hobbies. Then choose one and free write about it for ten minutes. Describe the necessary tools and materials. Consider in detail the necessary steps. What is your favorite part? Least favorite? How does your body feel when you are doing this activity? If you spark a memory or connection as you write, follow that instinct. You may also find that the images and concrete details in our free writing will come to you later as you tackle a difficult topic. And please share any successes as a comment.

On Disappointment

In this post, I wanted to announce that I had received my first grant, one that would bring not only money but notoriety, a higher profile, and the opportunity to begin teaching. In addition, financial support from this organization would strengthen my application to others. I hoped this award would be a tipping point in my career. But I did not receive the grant.

I have gotten used to rejection over the last few years since I started submitting my work for publication. I know it takes about twenty submissions for one acceptance, so I send each essay to multiple journals. When the rejection slip arrives, I take a break and let myself feel the sting. Then I get back to work and submit to another magazine. I often have the same essay out to five or ten journals so that one rejection does not derail me.

I tried this process after I received the grant letter. I allowed myself to feel disappointment over the weekend and returned to writing the following Monday. I felt fine for a few days, but the cloud returned and now seems more difficult to escape. I have realized that there are a few reasons, beyond the obvious issue of money, that I am struggling with this outcome. First, there are far fewer grants for which I am eligible than there are journals to which I can submit. If the 5% acceptance rate applies to grant applications, then it may be a few years and several more rejections before I receive a grant. However, I am willing to pay that price to reach my goals.

The other issue is that, unlike a completed essay of which I am confident and can send to another journal, the project for which I applied is in its beginning stages. I have yet to do the work, and it is easier to doubt an idea than a finished manuscript. The only way to overcome that doubt is to begin writing and rediscover the spark.

These conclusions can help me move forward, but I think it is also important to consider what I did receive from the grant application process. The most important achievement is a clear plan for my next project. Completing the application forced me to determine the scope and substance of my manuscript as well as a timeline for writing, editing, and submission. Having worked with the grant coordinator on my application, I better understand the specific requirements for this grant as well as how to prepare a competitive application for other funding. And honestly, I did enjoy those three months of anticipation, talking about my project and considering how it would feel to receive the grant. In that time, I realized that being funded would be exciting and invigorating but also raise the stakes of my work.

As a working writer, I will encounter many disappointments, each one a temporary stop along a much longer path. Onward to the next rejection and beyond.

My Writing Process

Process is one of my favorite aspects of writing. I find fascinating how other writers work; not where or how often they write but how they approach a project, what metaphors guide them through the process, and the twisted road they take from idea to published piece. For this reason, I have enjoyed the My Writing Process Blog Tour and the insight shared by various writers. I was thrilled when my friend and fellow Spalding alum Dania Rajendra asked me to participate. Dania is a generous reader and fantastic creative nonfiction writer who has recently begun publishing poetry. Her poem, "New Year's Instructions," appeared in Alimentum in April (scroll down to the third poet listed). You can also check out what Dania has to say about process on her blog: www.daniarajendra.net.

What Am I Working On?

I have recently returned to writing after time away to welcome and care for my second daughter. Motherhood has reshaped my life and continues to impact my work, providing a new frame for former life experiences. But the larger impact is that the challenge of motherhood compels me to speak of it, to piece together the naturally fragmented experience of parenting for myself and for the benefit of other parents.

Currently, I am revising older essays that examine the formation of personal and family identity. I am also planning my next project, a chapbook-length manuscript of brief essays that map my wide range of feelings toward motherhood. The essays will probe the most uncomfortable emotions—fear, ambivalence, anger—and examine how personal and cultural expectations and silence can hinder growth as a parent. My goal is to provide a realistic map of the often idealized landscape of motherhood by charting my own path.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Creative nonfiction encompasses a wide range of writing, including narrative journalism, memoir, and essay. I enjoy reading these forms and seeing how they overlap. But as a writer, I consider myself an essayist operating somewhere between the reflective ramble of the personal essay and the carefully structured and metaphor-driven lyric essay. I write in search of meaning, but I find the mosaic quality of lyric essay to be the best expression of my mind's work.

Why do I write what I do?

I mine my obsessions--the things to which I return over and over again. In my case, that is music, my grandparents, grief, kitsch, and craft. My life has had many iterations of broken family; in my writing I am always working to piece what has been rent into a new, more meaningful whole. Fiber craft--knitting, sewing, quilting--often appears in my work, operating as a metaphor for the torn fabric of family and the patchwork method used to make sense of life.

As mentioned above, I am also compelled by my challenging relationship with motherhood to write truthfully about the experience. I intend to share my trials and mistakes so that other parents might recognize their experience and feel more compassion for themselves. In the process, I hope to challenge societal notions and expectations of parenthood.

How does my writing process work?

I begin most often with a resonant topic, scene, or object (or combination thereof) on which I ruminate and/or free write until I can write something that feels like a comprehensive draft. I put away the draft for a few days or weeks. When I return to the work, I hope to see connections through repeated language or images, enough to trust that there is substance beneath the surface.

At this stage, what I lack is structure. When I start to get lost in the dead ends and divergences of my thoughts on paper, I grab a pair of scissors from my desk and cut the draft into sections which I lay on the floor. I move around the pieces according to intuition, all the while struggling through doubt and dissent, until I can sense the flow of my ideas and feel the connective threads pull together the pieces into something organic. Then I work through several rounds of revision.

One of the most important parts of my process and the biggest lesson I learned in graduate school is allowing other readers to read and respond to my work in draft form. A writer spends enough time alone, banging her fingers on the keyboard and her head against the wall. Careful readers point to unintended connections or reinforce the validity of carefully crafted ones. They provide a sounding board, empathy, and encouragement for what is always a difficult process.

Once the structure is solid, I revise several times to reinforce the connections and make sure that every word contributes. I read aloud after each revision to find the spots that lack clarity and flow. When I can read through without pause, I consider the essay ready for submission. A piece of work is never done, never perfect; for me, it needs only to be ready.

And now to pass the baton to two other Seattle writers whose work I admire. Anne Liu Kellor will post next Tuesday, May 27th. Isla McKetta posted her thoughts yesterday.

Anne Liu Kellor is a Seattle-based writer and teacher who has received support from Hedgebrook, 4Culture, Hypatia-in-the-Woods, and Jack Straw. Her essays have appeared in publications such as the anthology Waking Up American: Coming of Age Biculturally (Seal Press), The Los Angeles Review, and on her blog: heartradical.blogspot.com. Anne has taught writing workshops since 2006 to people of all ages and levels. Her memoir, SEARCHING FOR THE HEART RADICAL, follows her quest for language, love, and belonging as she migrates between China and America during her twenties, and is now in search of a publisher.

Isla McKetta is the author of Polska, 1994 and co-author of Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer’s Guide for Turning Artifacts into Art. She reviews books at A Geography of Reading. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Goddard College.