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January 1, 2015

Finding My Way Back Home

Guest Blogger: Jenny Sechler

When author and critic Elizabeth Janeway first encountered Louise Fitzhugh’s “Harriet the Spy,” in 1964, her response was prophetic. “I hope that hundreds of snoopy little girls will go and buy themselves notebooks and start writing down their observations,” she wrote. I was one of the legions of “snoopy little girls” who identified with Harriet, who read Fitzhugh’s book and felt that maybe, finally, someone understood me.

So, like many Harriet devotees, I eagerly made the pilgrimage to the Eric Carle Museum’s exhibit of Louise Fitzhugh’s original pen and ink illustrations, hosted in honor of the book’s 50th anniversary. As I entered the gallery and saw the beloved, familiar faces rendered in Fitzhugh’s bold, inimitable hand, I felt like I had come across pictures of my own childhood, like I was greeting my childhood self. I was filled with joy, not just at sight of Harriet in her spy clothes and sneakers, but also at the memory of myself in similar attire, tromping through the woods in my rural community and bemoaning how my lack of neighbors made it impossible for me to start my own spy route.

Harriet has been described as many things over the years. She has been called mean, a brat, a feminist icon, opinionated, honest, even a liberator. The 11-year-old protagonist of Fitzhugh’s novel spends her after school time spying on her neighbors, often in elaborate, creative ways – and writing down her observations in a notebook, which she always slams shut with exclamatory zeal.

And even when Harriet isn’t spying, she’s writing. She writes about her friends, her parents, her teachers, just about everyone she encounters, either directly or illicitly. Perhaps what I admire most about Harriet is how certain she is, especially about herself. Harriet maintains that certainty even after a series of painful losses. Her beloved nanny, Ole Golly, leaves to get married, and shortly after this, her classmates find and read her notebook. Deeply wounded after learning her unfiltered thoughts about them, Harriet’s classmates turn on her, subjecting her to a campaign of ridicule. Yet even in the face of this, Harriet turns to her notebook and writes: “I love myself.”

Like Harriet, I was a nosey child, an observer – not a joiner. Like Harriet, I knew I was a writer. As I grew older, I questioned this. To be a writer, I decided, you can’t just declare it to yourself. You have to do more than keep a notebook, or write stories and poems that never leave the intimate confines of your writing groups. To be a writer, I thought, you had to deliver. Being a writer had to be something in the real world, something you could answer to that inevitable “What do you do?” question at parties.

Years went by during which I couldn’t legitimately provide that answer, because I was making a living doing something else. The identity of “writer” was one I only whispered to myself when no one was looking. 

After spending 15 years in another profession, at age 45, I am finally ready to become a writer in “the real world.” And I’ve discovered I had it backwards all along. As I sat down to review the steps I needed to take in order to begin this process – identifying my options, understanding the market, scheduling informational interviews with others in the profession – I realized that I couldn’t do anything until I summoned my inner Harriet. I needed to declare myself as a writer. I needed to say it to myself and I needed to introduce myself as such to others, to announce it with certainty: “Hi, I’m Jenny and I’m a writer.”

The more I say it, the easier it becomes. I’ve been writing all my life. I don’t have to justify my identity to anyone, especially not to myself. Of course I’m a writer! Was there ever any doubt?

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Jenny Miller Sechler is a writer living in Leeds.

December 1, 2014

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“Books break the shackles of time. 

A book is proof that humans can work magic.”

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Guest Blogger: Claire Day

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The world of the written word is a mystery to me.  It pulls me in and I have no idea why.  Yes, I can explain my love of language, of phrases polished like rich mahogany, worlds I enter with trust and joyful anticipation.  How beautifully written fiction with characters who grow through the pages, unfolding in slow paces, allows me to enter their experiences with them.  But beneath these reasons lies a mystery: the mystery of why.

Why am I drawn to words so powerfully, and not, for instance, the world of science, into which my son and husband pour their enthusiasm? “That’s interesting,” I say when they explain a facet of the universe to me, or a natural phenomenon here on earth.  And I really mean it.  It is interesting – intellectually. I know that.  But the experience for me is all intellectual – devoid of emotion.

I have an awareness of the awesomeness of the cosmos, and I use that word in its traditional not diminished modern sense.  I can feel the vastness, the sense of possibility outside of the limits of my perceptions, a sense of wonder.  But it doesn’t fill my head as I go for walks or perform mindless chores.  It doesn’t imbue me with the joyful anticipation of returning to a book to read more, and it certainly doesn’t satisfy what I have come to accept is an integral piece of me as a reader:  the need to see language constructed in a way that has beauty in its choice of words and phraseology, much as paintings have their colors, tones and brush strokes.  It’s all about conveying what’s in the writer’s mind in such a way that the reader can see, feel and experience it in much the same way.

Where that need comes from I have no idea.  Yes, I grew up in a home of readers; I’m an only child and lived a lot in the world of my imagination.  But that’s not enough to explain the mystery.  Why is it words I’m drawn to so powerfully – not paintings, not ballet, not any of the other expressive art forms?  That’s the mystery I’m speaking of:  how each one of us responds differently to what is available; how we are moved by different experiences.  For me, it will always be written words.  When combined with skill and love, they have the capacity to create a beauty that allows me to access mental images and ideas far greater and richer than any I have experienced in my own life.  Whatever the mystery that pulls me toward them, I accept it with gratitude.

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*excerpt from the 11th episode of Carl Sagan’s 1980s Cosmos series, titled “The Persistence of Memory”

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Claire Day, a transplant from England, is a Founding Member of Straw Dog, and an Amherst Writers & Artists alum. She has been a workshop participant over a span of many years, and, for a time, a workshop leader. During her career as a public school teacher she tried to instill in her students that sense of discovery and enthusiasm that writing always instills in her. Now retired, she is finally about to fulfill the number one item on her bucket list and study for an MFA.

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November 1, 2014

The Mitten String:

An interview with local author Jennifer Rosner

by Missy Wick

jr-new-photoWhen her family invites a deaf woman and her baby to stay, Ruthie, a talented knitter of mittens, wonders how the mother will know if her child wakes in the night. The surprising answer inspires Ruthie to knit a special gift that offers great comfort to mother and baby—and to Ruthie herself.

Straw Dog Writers Guild member Jennifer Rosner wrote this modern day folk tale – The Mitten String – as a picture book. Although Rosner is best known for her memoir If a Tree Falls, and a collection of essays she edited, The Messy Self, she loves the picture book form for its beauty and word economy. I recently had the pleasure of talking to her over tea about how a long-form writer goes short.

The Mitten String is based on a true story. Can you tell me more about that?

Jennifer: Yes, it is based on a story I learned about my great-great aunt Bayla, who lived in an Austrian shtetl in the 1800s. Bayla was deaf and when she had a baby (whom she could neither see nor hear in the dark of night), she tied a string between them. When her baby cried, she felt the tug on her end of the string an
d woke to care for her baby. The Mitten String features a little girl, Ruthie, who adds something special to Bayla’s innovation.

Why did you choose to write a picture book?

Jennifer: There is very strong imagery in my story: Bayla uses a Sign language and, of course, she connects to her baby with string. I love the way picture books enable discovery through words and images – it’s a wonderful form – and my illustrator, Kristina Swarner, did a fabulous job portraying the essence and the emotional heart of my story in her illustrations.

You are used to writing longer prose. How did you shift to being so “economical” with your words?

Jennifer: My background is in (academic) Philosophy. This is not always helpful to my creative writing pursuits! However, I am as a result well-trained in the art of cutting words! Most of my writing is “economical,” even when I wish to be expansive.

Which picture book authors inspire you?

Jennifer:There are so many! Barbara Cooney, Maurice Sendak, Tomie dePaola, Mem Fox, Dr. Seuss – not to mention all of the amazing authors and illustrators right here in the valley. I’m inspired by the imaginativeness, the soothing cadences, the silliness, and of course the delight of reading such wonderful books to my own children.

To learn more about Jennifer’s work, go to her website, here

And meet Jennifer in person in November:

• Sunday,November 2nd, 2pm, At the Odyssey Bookshop book launch and “craft-ernoon”

• Sunday, November 9th, at 2pm, The Eric Carle museum will hold Storytime with Jennifer. Illustrator Kristina Swarner will also talk about her art process.

An ASL interpreter will be at both events.

Missy_WickMissy Wick, Interviewer and Straw Dog Blog Editor

 

October 1, 2014

 Write Angles

…a day of literary and gustatory delights!

On October 18, 2014, Western New England celebrates the 29th anniversary of its very own Write Angles Conference, by writers, for writers. If you decide to go, bring your appetite – it is a day of literary and gustatory delight.   In addition to the panels, workshops, meetings, and networking opportunities, you’ll hear keynote addresses from writer, educator, and cultural activist Christian McEwen, and novelist David Anthony Durham.

And the rest of the day? Take a look at the panels being offered:

Doing What You Love: Sustaining Your Writerly Practice – Panelists: Liz Bedell (moderator), Áine Greaney, Christian McEwen, Holly Wren Spaulding

The Essay: A Genre for All Reasons – Panelists: Daniel Jones, Robin Maltz, Bill Newman, Darlene Smith-Ash (moderator)

Building a Platform: What Is It, Do You Need It, and How Do You Create It? Panelists: Linda Cardillo, Avital Norman Nathman, Jean Stone, Julie Winberg

Pen in the Sickroom: Getting the Illness/Caretaking Experience on Paper –   Panelists: Jeanne Borfitz (moderator), Joanna Lillian Brown, Jan Freeman, Nell Lake, Suzanne Strempek Shea

Muse or Method? The Poetry Process in Perspective – Panelists: Sally Bellerose, Terry S. Johnson (moderator), Gail Thomas

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Then there are the Agents… 

Literary agents tell what they look for in a publishable manuscript.

…And the workshops –

“Who’s Speaking and Why Does it Matter?”? Workshop leader: Ellen Meeropol

Read & Weed: Critiquing for Growth? Workshop Leaders: Liz Bedell, Cheryl Malandrinos, Jean Marie Ruiz, Darlene Smith-Ash

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Missy_WickThe conference is held in Mount Holyoke College’s gracious Willits-Hallowell Center in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Fees includes a continental breakfast and bountiful lunch:

  • $100 in advance and $110 at the door (general admission)
  • Full-time students and those age 65 and over: $50 in advance and $60 at the door

Be sure to stay the end. You might win an attendance prize. Perhaps an inspirational book, maybe even signed.

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September 1, 2014

 E-Publishing: a Serendipitous Conversation

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Weather report: heavy rain mingling with severe thunderstorms.  Flash floods as well.  This was too much tumult for my tender nerves, so I traveled to a late summer writer’s conference a day early.   Lucky for me, the “Blue Room” at the Chipman Inn in Ripton, Vermont was available.  Built in 1828, the inn is owned by the friendliest hosts a traveler could hope for.  When I arrived, Deborah (sister of one of the owners), a buoyant woman with golden hair, broad smile, and infectious laugh, welcomed me into the fold.   As it turns out, she has her own literary passions.  “I write trashy romances, or as the Brits call them, “sex and shopping.”

Later in the evening, over tea and flourless chocolate cake, we talked about the joys of writing romance novels and the value of electronic publishing.  “Why electronic publishing?” I asked.

Deborah: I tried for several years to find an agent and a publisher.  Unless you are Maeve Binchley or Danielle Steele publishers are not interested.  Romance writers are a dime a dozen.  Many people read my book and said that it was compelling, interesting, and all the things that you want a romance novel to be –  happy, with some tension, drama, and lots of sex – I thought there has to be a different way to do this.  Self-publishing was the way, but print-on-demand books are expensive. 

A friend of mine, Octavia Randolph, wrote a trilogy and she had a large, international readership that wanted more of her work.  She realized that the ebook format was the way to go for her readers. She does not charge much, but she is in the top ten of Amazon’s top 10 list of Women’s Adventure. People seem willing to take a chance on the books if they don’t have to spend too much money.

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“So there is a formula,” I said. “Sex, love, danger, and happy endings in an electronic format.”

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Deborah: Yes. Romance readers are voracious.  They read books in two days and look for the next thing. I was told to have three books before publishing a romance novel as an ebook.  I am almost finished with the third.   I write because it makes me happy, and when I share it with people it seems to make them happy – and when they have access at low cost, it is all good.   

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You can read Deborah’s blog here.   Her romance novels will be available on Amazon or through her website deborahdishes.com. And if you have questions about romance writing or ebook publishing, feel free to contact her.

 

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Chipman Inn, Ripton VT

August 1, 2014

In Their Own Voices…

Missy Wick, Straw Dog Blog Editor

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August in the Pioneer Valley – the blueberries are in bloom, the tomatoes are ripening on the vine, and there is abundant local fiction to pick from your independent bookstore or library shelves. For a third summer, reporter Karen Brown and her colleagues at New England Public Radio are featuring the work of western New England authors.

“A few years ago, we realized we had so many wonderful fiction authors in our region — and often their work was not getting out there,” said Brown. “At the same time, we have a very enthusiastic fiction reading audience — one that values home-grown talent. A summer interview series seemed like a great way to help those groups find each other.”

This year, they heralded the season with an interview with Cammie McGovern, author of Say What you Will, a book about the intersection between love and disability. You can listen to all of the archived interviews here.

To savor more locavore fiction flavor try some NEPR books from 2013:

The View From Penthouse B Elinor Lipman

Schroder Amity Gaige

The Celestials Karen Shepard

Sometimes It Snows In America Marisa Labozzetta

Rest Stops Elizabeth Slade

Paris Twilight Russ Rymer 2012

Gone Girl Cathi Hanauer

Summer Breeze Nancy Thayer

Three Anne Marie Monahan

Love and Fatigue in America Roger King

Camp Elaine Wolf
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July 1, 2014

An Invitation to Read

Missy Wick, Straw Dog Blog Editor

They say that you can’t tell a book by its cover, but the first words can make or break the relationship.  “How can the writer,” asks author Stephen King, “extend an appealing invitation — one that’s difficult, even, to refuse?”*  Here are some answers – first lines – from authors I plan to spend time with this summer.  I look forward to their company. 

 

Archangel by Andrea Barrett

Early that June, Constantine Boyd left Detroit with his usual trunk but got on a train headed east instead of west. 

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All the Land to Hold Us by Rick Bass

He was not the first seeker of treasure upon the landscape, was instead but one more in the continuum of a story begun long ago by greater desires than even his own.

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All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

At dusk they pour from the sky.

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Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

In winter, when the green earth lies resting beneath a blanket of snow, this is the time for storytelling. 

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The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall

Human life is so bound up in stories that we are thoroughly desensitized to their weird and witchy power.

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Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin

The sky had lifted at least thirty feet.

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One Man’s Meat by E.B. White

Several months ago, finding myself in possession of one hundred and seventeen chairs divided about evenly between a city house and a country house, and desiring to simplify my life, I sold half of my worldly goods, evacuated the city house, gave up my employment, and came to live in New England.  

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* Why Stephen King Spends ‘Months and Even Years’  Writing Opening Sentences

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June 1, 2014

Ancient Shadows

Editor’s note:  Winter was an endurance test this year. We are due for a bit of summer pleasure – words that spice the afternoon heat; mind treks for lazy days. When Claire Day read this piece in writing workshop, it inspired thoughts of “summer reading” and the Virtual Clubhouse.  In the spirit of summer and reading, I invited Claire to share her piece in this month’s blog.  Enjoy!   — Missy Wick
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Guest Blogger:

Claire Day

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Candles: they’re still gleaming in the pages of my mind as if it had been just days ago, not years and years. Thousands of candles passing light one to the other until the whole arena, that shell of ancient times, sparkled with tiny brilliances like the stars above the grey stone walls that had survived the passing of an empire.That first night at the Verona Opera Festival, the light and sky and stars, the orchestra tuning up in harmonious disharmony – all melded in the balmy air of expectation to weave a magic that reaches to this day.
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To sit among the thousands on ancient tiered seats of stone – where toga-clad plebeians had sat before me, awaiting what was to come – to sense the lingering presence of spirit souls was to journey from one age to another. I saw the conquering legions march on sandaled feet through the archway at one end, saw the governor in white robes gaze down from his box above the other. Plumed helmets, swaying tunics, rhythmic thump of feet on sand. And twenty thousand pairs of watching eyes, twenty thousand chattering voices, twenty thousand minds not knowing that their empire’s time, their way of life was finite.
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The opera, Carmen, was magnificent of course; staged, sung, and accompanied by the world’s musical elite. It’s what I tell about the most: the seeing and the hearing. But it’s the feeling that’s stayed with me decades beyond, an absolute sense of history, of having somehow crossed into another age and felt the shadows of ancients move around me.
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Three nights I sat in a haze of wonder, three nights breathing ancient air, in deep, deep gulps so they would last.
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Claire Day, a transplant from England, is a Founding Member of Straw Dog, and an Amherst Writers & Artists alum. She has been a workshop participant over a span of many years, and,for a time, a workshop leader. During her career as a public school teacher she tried to instill in her students that sense of discovery and enthusiasm that writing always instills in her. Now retired, she is finally about to fulfill the number one item on her bucket list and study for an MFA.


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May 1, 2013

Tightly Structured and Wildly Thought

 Interview with Celia Jeffries  

Guest Blogger: 

Sarah Feldman, Straw Dog Literary Correspondent 

 

.Celia JeffiesCelia Jeffries is a writer, teacher and editor whose published memoir pieces tackle subjects ranging from group therapy to breast cancer, through forms that include narrative, flash nonfiction and collage essay.

From 2011-2013 Celia served with the Peace Corps in Botswana, working in the Kopong Junior Secondary School as a School Community Liaison. She says that she’d planned to join the Peace Corps when younger, but life “took a left turn….  Thirty years on, I found myself with the time and space for it.”

Celia’s background includes work for the TAB Newspapers in Boston and in educational publishing with Houghton Mifflin. She has run writing workshops for children, teenagers, college students and adults, and recently received a Massachusetts Cultural Council grant for her work facilitating a writing group for nine-year-old boys.  Her work has appeared in Solsticelitmag.org, Writer’s Chronicle, Westview, Puerto del Sol and the anthology Escaping the Yellow Wallpaper.

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Sarah: I’m interested in the wide variety of contexts in which you’ve taught: in the classroom, both at the high school and university level; through workshops and mentorships; as a Writer-in-Residence at Forbes Library; as a School Community Liaison with the Peace Corps in Botswana. Are there any shared features in terms of what you hope your students will take from the experience?

Celia: Most of what I teach is writing. I follow the Amherst Writers and Artists method, [so] my focus is on finding the individual voice. I think once you have that, the rest follows – you can do whatever it is you need to do.

Even in Botswana, most of what I taught was writing. The Peace Corps put us into a program for teaching “life skills” – an HIV/AIDS prevention program whose structure had been prescribed by the Botswana government. But one of the pieces of advice I got from a fellow Peace Corps volunteer was to “do what you love”. So I started a writing club at the [Kopong] school. I was able to effect more change that way than through the established “life skills” program.

It’s very much a formal school structure in Botswana – they have corporal punishment, all the learning is by rote. I thought that [the students] would be uncomfortable with the sort of free form writing I introduced in the group. But they took to it immediately. 

English is the official language of Botswana. All the textbooks are in English and all the exams are in English, but many teachers don’t teach in that language, which presents a serious obstacle for many students. But in the writing club – because its format was so open, and because it wasn’t for grades – they wrote in English with no problem.  

Sarah: Is your focus the same when you’re teaching a workshop?

Celia: My workshops are more craft oriented. I use exercises focusing on specific points of craft. I think that’s what people want in workshops, especially here in the Valley. It’s a question of: “Now we’ve got our voices flowing, how do we give form to what we want to say? How do we create memoir or fiction or essays?”

 Sarah: Reading your memoir piece, “Breastless” (Solsticelitmag.com), I’m struck by the variety of tones and angles you weave together into a resonant whole. What was your process like in creating this piece?

Celia: I think I came at this piece of my story in many different ways at many different times in my life.  Which is what memoir does, because memory is different every day, colored by what’s happening in the present moment. Memoir is about how you remember something, how you make sense of that story in your life.

Maybe it’s my journalism background, but I’ll often think through a story for some time and not really get going on the writing until I have my “lead”. For “Breastless”, the lead was, “I have a man-made breast”. Once I have that first line I find the rest of the piece takes form more easily.

Sarah: Do you have a sense, when you’re shaping material from life experience, of how it comes to be structured as memoir rather than fiction? What are some of the differences for you?

Celia: Fiction demands more logic than reality. I just find life so wild, I have trouble ‘making things up’. I think memoir allows you to make connections and move through time in a different way than fiction.  Our minds are all over the place all day long. That said, I think memoir can be as tightly structured as fiction. Perhaps the best memoir is like the best poetry – tightly structured and wildly thought.

For more information on Celia Jeffries, visit her website, here.

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Join Celia to explore memoir

and learn about different approaches

for writing and shaping your own individual stories. 

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May 13, 6:00 – 8:00 PM

Storrs Library, Longmeadow

 

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Sarah Feldman’s work has appeared in The Villager, Chelsea Now, The Antigonish Review and The Fiddlehead. Some of her poems were anthologized in “Undercurrents: New Voices in Canadian Poetry.”

April 1, 2014

My Inner Critic and I…

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Guest Blogger:  Linda M. Rowland-Buckley

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I love to sit at my desk and watch words fall onto the page and into the mouths of my characters. The dialog between them grows and their conversations expand until I have a complete story.

Then the questions arrive:  What do I do with the families I create …the people on the page that I fall in love with?  How do I share these characters with the world? 

I want to give my characters the life they deserve, but the inner critic I have fought so long, the one full of fear who says, just revise that paragraph one more time — balks.  He says: the structure is off; you are making your reader work too hard to learn about your narrator.  Some days I believe him. Some days I believe the narrator’s emotional texture is inauthentic. This leads me to wonder if I will ever publish my novel.

My inner critic does not like the business of publishing, either. The large conferences, three-minute pitches, and dismissive agents bring out my vulnerability. Rejection is a painful process. That lurch in the stomach as I recover from the disappointment of reading “after careful review, we’ve decided not to include your work in our anthology”: time heals the initial wound, but a dull ache persists.

Still, my characters have a right to meet the readership that hopefully awaits them. This means learning the landscape of the publishing market.  Some aspects of the business help make it more approachable. Friends share publishing news about journals accepting submissions, via social media such as FaceBook. The decision to face down my fear and cast a wider net lands me a publication.  My first flash fiction appears in BG Blues and Music News, an online magazine.

Another way to make submitting and marketing more approachable is to attend the upcoming craft presentation by Straw Dog Writers Guild. My inner critic and I plan to be there; I hope you will join us – with or without your inner critic…!

 

Editor’s note – Join us for:

“The Top Ten Reasons to Publish in Literary Magazines and How to do It”  

with Writer and Editor Hunter Ligoure

Saturday April 5, 2014   10:30 a.m.- 12 p.m

Lilly Library, Florence, MA.

Ligoure – editor-in-chief of the print journal ‘American Athenaeum’, and teacher of historic fiction writing at Lesley University’s MFA program – will discuss:  ways to identify markets that are best suited for your work; what editors are looking for; how to avoid common mistakes when submitting; and ways to construct a good biography, even without publishing credits. 

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Linda Rowland-BuckleyLinda M. Rowland-Buckley has published five pieces of fiction on the BG Blues and Music News website.  She lives with her family in South Hadley, MA and is working on revising her first novel.