Monday, August 20, 2018

Books, Libraries and a New Writing Circle




Last week when I was teaching a workshop on publishing I mentioned that my books have served me well. Over the last eight years, unexpected surprises came along after publishing —people joined our Women’s Writing Circle and together we’ve shared countless stories. My writing workshops thrived through word-of-mouth. Publishing two memoirs and a novel is a journey that leads down many paths.


A writer benefits from sharing his or her work in community and camaraderie with other writers. That I would become an author and lead a writing group was the stuff of dreams—at least for me—and as corny as it sounds, it all came true.

A new journey begins September 11. It's called The Writing Circle at Henrietta Hankin.

For those who live in and around Chester County, please join us from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. the second Tuesday of the month at the Henrietta Hankin Library in Chester Springs. Writers of all experience levels working in all genres are welcome. More information will become available on the Chester County Library System website. When the library approached me about this, I was honored. My guess is we have a lot of aspiring writers in the community.

I’ve worked with libraries before and it's always a pleasure. At the Lower Providence Community Library, I taught memoir two years in a row. Last Christmas, I taught memoir at Downingtown Library. In June I traveled to Amsterdam, New York and with fellow author Kathy Pooler gave a talk on memoir and family myths at her local library.


Gratefully, the Henrietta Hankin Library has hosted numerous author events over the years for me and the Women’s Writing Circle. The library was also setting for the opening scene in my novel, A Portrait of Love and Honor, when Ava and Jay first meet at her author talk and book signing.

Floor-to-ceiling windows offered a view of fields and a rust-colored barn in the distance. A blue pottery urn filled with gold chrysanthemums, a plate of oatmeal raisin cookies and pitcher of lemonade graced a table with white linen cloth. Nice touches by the librarian, Ava thought. She loved libraries. What little community remained seemed possible because of the local library and the small bookstore. 

Of course, our Women's Writing Circle continues to meet the second Saturday of the month at the Hilton Garden Inn. Here is information about our September 8 read around.

***

And the memories return of rain-soaked streets. A tall skinny thirteen-year-old girl in bright green vinyl raincoat dashes out of the car to escape the downpour. She finds refuge in the library.

A book-filled sanctuary. A pathway to learning about herself and her life, which she had yet to live. Browsing books on wood-paneled shelves. Scanning titles, names of authors. Long tables by windows with views of tulip poplar trees. Sitting down to read. Smelling and feeling the pages. Falling in love with words, sentences, scenes, characters.

Those memories remain with me always. Why?  Libraries and all they conjure are the heart—and the home—of the writer. 

How about you? Can you share memories of your local library?


Monday, August 13, 2018

Traversing the Publishing Landscape In a New Era



Maybe you want an audience to read your memoir, your short stories or poetry—or maybe you don’t. In the Women’s Writing Circle, we honor writers who write for others, and those who write for their eyes only.

If an audience is what you seek, how do you go about traversing the complex byways of today’s ever-changing and dynamic publishing landscape?

A democratization of publishing has opened the world of book publishing to anyone who wants to call himself or herself an author. This has an upside and downside. Competition is keen and you want your work to stand out.

In order to master the publishing terrain, it's necessary to understand the diverse options available in a new era and chose the one aligned with your goals as a writer and author.


Author Helen Hieble
The crux of our Women's Writing Circle workshop, Traditional or Independent Publishing? this past weekend served as an introduction to publishing options. The many permutations of each option were not the focus. I did try to present a comprehensive overview using printed handouts, as well as the internet, projected on a large television screen in our Women's Writing Circle conference room, to map out “the lay of the land.” 

Here are takeaways from our workshop, attended by fourteen writers, some published authors, some not. The publishing landscape is a rocky road, a diverse frontier populated by myriad groups, companies, websites and blogs selling their wares. Sorting through it can be exhausting.

Evaluate your skill set before deciding what and how to publish. How much help do you need? How much can you do on your own?

What does the Big Five consider marketable? Romance, erotica, nonfiction (Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff). Although the dream is an advance and a big company behind you, most authors, especially those writing memoir and literary fiction, will not be fortunate enough to take that route.

What drives you to publish now and in the future? 

What works for you and aligns with your goals might not work for another writer. The point is to stay engaged, be enthusiastic about your work and consider investing in it as you would season tickets to the theater, or whatever your passion.

***

Authors Marilyn Michalski and Flo Shore
Who knew ALL that goes into self-publishing? For some, it wasn’t just an eye-opener, but, well, yes, an eye-opener. Hiring your own editors, (developmental editors and proof readers and, yes, you need both) designing a cover, hiring a company which offers formatting and marketing “packages” (for example, BookBaby or Mill City Press) … it's all under your control. Going the self-publishing or assisted self-publishing route requires research and comparison shopping. 

DIY (Do It Yourself)—learning to use the free tools on Amazon's CreateSpace to upload and publish your manuscript and cover is another option.  Do you even need a paperback? Digital books often comprise the majority of sales for an author. The time, talent and patience DIY requires works if you have a timeline to quickly get a book online and want or need to save a decent chunk of money.


For those who don’t want the headaches that go with being an independent author and publisher, small presses, a form of traditional publishing,  also produce POD (print on demand) books. Most don’t require a literary agent or query letter and few, if any, offer advances. What they offer is some discernment of who they will publish and who they reject.

Does a small press staff cultivate a long-term relationship? What can they do for you that you can't do alone? Anyone can call themselves a small press or publisher. Do they operate out of their garage and go out of business, leaving your book in limbo? Research who they published, track records in longevity and sales, copyright issues and contracts. If they require money upfront from you (buying a set number of books), they're best to avoid, according to experts in the book business.

The term hybrid or partnership publishing came as a revelation. “I didn’t know that was even a possibility. Makes me feel less alone, like there are people out there to help me with all of this,” one woman said. “I like it!”  However, there can be significant costs associated in hopes of getting into a bookstore or receiving a marketing leg up.

Is a contract necessary to hire an editor?  I admit I don’t have firsthand experience. (For me, the "contract" with my editors was a handshake, an agreed upon sum. I selected editors I knew personally and respected.) If companies offer editorial services, before signing on the dotted line, ask them who is doing the editing, what are their credentials and backgrounds. Writers need business acumen to protect themselves and their investment.

Audiobooks are great while driving to work, stuck in traffic jams, working out at the gym and long-distance driving. They're also a growing market. However, the pleasure in listening boils down to who is reading your book, their interpretation of its story, their voice and overall presentation. Who is going to read your book in a way that captures the essence of your voice and story? We looked at the ACX website for more information on how to create an audiobook.


The bottom line: We can publish the way we want and how we want with or without gatekeepers.

Summertime is often a difficult season to get writing accomplished, so a publishing workshop in August works well, or so I was told. But, as always, it gets back to the writing. This is our first priority—and yet—our writers wanted to know more about launching a book, marketing and networking skills, all fodder for another workshop.

What resources help guide you through the process of publishing? The internet is a wide open terrain of information and commercial enterprise. Beware of scams and scam artists. Some claim they'll help you and then disappear or charge exorbitant fees without delivering the services, or don’t have the experience or credentials to stay at the top of the game in this competitive world of publishing. I cited SFWA's Writer Beware and  Jane Friedman as resources to keep alert to this.


How about you? Which publishing routes are you considering, or have chosen, and how has that worked out?


A former staff writer with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Susan G. Weidener has written two bestselling memoirs, Again in a Heartbeat: a memoir of love, loss and dating again, which has been translated into Spanish, and its sequel Morning at Wellington Square. Her novel, A Portrait of Love and Honor, is based on a true story. As an independent author, she has taught memoir and fiction to adults from Philadelphia, PA to Tucson, AZ and been instrumental in collaborating on publishing two short story and poetry collections, Slants of Light: Stories and Poems from the Women's Writing Circle and The Life Unexpected: An Anthology. Susan facilitates the Women’s Writing Circle, a support and critique group for writers in suburban Philadelphia and blogs weekly. Her website is: http://www.susanweidener.com/

Monday, July 30, 2018

Mary Queen of Scots, Women and Wellness






As I wrote last week, the wind whispers, the lakes ripple and history and the past collide to color moor, mist and moss in the English Lake District. Comfort and wellness for the poets and writers of the 18th and 19th centuries resided in solitude and nature's impassive silence and moment of being.

It bears little resemblance to today's "wellness" industries with their magical thinking, mugwort steam, crystals and rose quartz. History teaches that life and death played out on a dramatic and often short-lived stage, minus endless questions centered around Why am I so unhappy?

Sipping coffee on the front porch in the early morning air, I watch the first pink and orange streaks of light rise over the horizon. I feel lucky to be born now, in this time and place. Writers have always echoed and honored refrains of the past—not tearing everything down and starting from scratch, as happening now in our country. Wellness can be found in that sunrise, that writing class, accepting that much of what is to come remains out of our control. It is not easy. It never has been for us women.

***

I went to Scotland and got somewhat re-acquainted with the story of Mary Queen of Scots.
Imprisoned the last eighteen years of her life by her more powerful cousin and rival, Elizabeth I, Mary’s life was tragic and violent. Even her son, the future King of England (or the barrels of wine she consumed and bathed in), couldn't save the six-foot-tall beauty with the porcelain complexion from her eventual fate. I empathize with Elizabeth who saw Mary—for good reason—as a traitor and threat to her throne and legitimacy. Elizabeth, after all, had her own demons and destiny.

Elizabeth


Poor Mary. She rode over bleak moors to rescue the wounded Earl of Bothwell—her third and final husband— in her quest to find a true and lasting relationship. But while she was pursuing this ill-fated venture, risking health and almost dying by the time she reached Hermitage Castle, she must have sensed the existential reality—not even a queen could outsmart life's twists and turns.


In Britain, we find these dramatic stories of women born into power through inheritance. In America, the self-made woman struggles to grab her piece of power, seeks autonomy from male-dominated professions and men who can make or break her career … she attempts victory over a political system riddled with misogyny. We pay big bucks to self-help gurus to help us right our thyroids, improve our sex lives, find instant remedies at the touch of a texted bar code, a podcast.

***
After I left the desolate ruins of Hermitage Castle, I traveled to Jedburgh and the house where Mary lived—albeit she remained only a month. I thought of her praying for salvation that would never arrive. How would it end for her? I read her final letter, preserved in a glass case. She expressed victimization and being misunderstood. But accept her fate she did.

I walked a steep hill to the jail overlooking the Scottish countryside. A display featured an impoverished woman incarcerated in solitary confinement for a month for stealing a potato, slowly going mad in her isolation. There was no wrangling out of the sentence, no jury of her peers, no "wait, you don't understand, give me a second chance." The anonymous faces of the dead haunt the Anglo-Scottish border.

Otterburn
After I left Jedburgh, I returned to the hotel—a castle in Otterburn, Northumberland, run by a sweet family— pulled out my notebook and made a list of aspirations. I have already outlived Mary Queen of Scots by more than twenty years … not to mention that poor woman jailed for stealing potatoes who probably met her demise in her twenties.

  • Travel (despite how much I hate airports, airplanes and time changes).
  • Teach a workshop on publishing with the intent to encourage everyone to become an author, if they desire.
  • Offer a writing workshop on childhood memories.
  • Keep writing and finish another book.
  • Drive to Salem, Massachusetts to celebrate "witches" burned at the stake.
  • Take an online poetry series.
  • Continue to focus on stress reduction.
  • Don't be so hard on myself.
Hermitage Castle
How about you? Have you made a list of hopes and aspirations? Where does wellness lead for you?

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Solitude and Inspiration In the English Lake District

Somewhere along the way to Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage in the English Lake District I got to thinking how writers spend so much time in solitude they naturally gravitate to the most beautiful places. Nature, after all, provides the inspiration to accept—even revel—in the solitude and loneliness our work demands.



From May Sarton to Virginia Woolf, to William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, the writing life is separate and apart from any other. It is not, or should not be, about ego and making money or a name for yourself, but the expression—which demands to be brought forth against all odds. In nature, writers have found the sustenance to survive this most demanding life, intellectually and physically.




As I traveled the Lake District, the landscape offered insight into writing and poetry. Cottages built on gray and green hillsides hide behind lush gardens of rhododendron, roses and phlox, yew and maple. The wind whispers, the mist clears, and the lakes shimmer in sunlight.

For Wordsworth, who three times turned down Queen Victoria’s request to accept the position of Poet Laureate before finally acquiescing and then never writing another poem, success as a poet and being born into a family with income allowed him to move to Rydal Mount, a stately manor house overlooking the lakes. Here he buried his daughter on a hillside overflowing with daffodils in spring, symbolic of his famous "Daffodils" poem, which I got to read to my fellow travelers in his dining room, where he once entertained an admirer, Ralph Waldo Emerson. I received a copy of the poem, signed by his great-great-great granddaughter, Susan.



Dove Cottage
For Beatrix Potter, a woman of wealth, money meant the freedom to write at Hill Top, a cozy 17th century cottage decorated with photographs and memorabilia of family life in close quarters. The lights are left on, the fire burning, just as she wanted it after her death so that visitors to the cottage would experience the house exactly as it was when she wrote and painted.


Like the writers of her day, including Wordsworth, she self-published.  Her Peter Rabbit books caught on and the rest, as they say, is history. Success allowed her to purchase large tracts of land and farms in the Lake District, placing them in conservation easements in perpetuity with the National Trust. She is honored for that … not so much that she failed to support the feminist cause of her day, women's right to vote. The 100th anniversary of that milestone was celebrated while I was in England.


The Lake District resembles my home here in Chester County, Pennsylvania. I couldn’t help but identify with the solitude and beauty of the landscape … romantic and elegant, albeit with rain and many dreary days … a place that requires, at the very least, a modest income to write and publish.

I felt that the writers of the Lake District, including opium addict Samuel Taylor Coleridge, best friends with Wordsworth until they had a falling out, accepted death and mortality as a natural progression; that death is but a part of the journey, not to be feared.

No Internet, no social media to market and publicize work, no demand or longing to live forever. As writers, we can take away lessons from those who came before us. In the beauty of the Lakes, that moment of being as Virginia Woolf once described it, is redolent in the air … a moment that whispers that life is fleeting and in nature, the healing and the inspiration abound.




How about you? Is there a place you've visited that resonates with your journey as a writer?

Monday, July 9, 2018

Writing, Travel and Letting Go




A two-week vacation to the English Lake District, timed to coincide with my birthday on July 11, begins today. A couple birthdays ago, I went to London and before that, women’s writing conferences. Gifts to myself. Gifts to the writer. 

I’m traveling to the place where mountains, forests and lakes inspired Wordsworth. Windermere is not far from Manchester where my grandmother, Annie Beatrice Dean Weidener, was born. As a young woman, she traveled from England to Philadelphia, where she met my grandfather, Andrew Weidener, a marketing and sales manager for the Pennsylvania Railroad. After he died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-nine, Nanny ran a small boarding house (now called a bed and breakfast) in Germantown, serving tea to strangers, her cat purring on the windowsill …. 

http://www.susanweidener.com/2015/07/family-legacy-through-memoir-and-poetry.html

Like my grandmother, I travel. Lately, I’ve sensed a need to travel a new path … thinking of Robert Frost “two roads diverged in a wood and I—I took the one less traveled by”; a new beginning, a new endeavor, a new path. Which to choose? So many options.

Reflection and time, along with patience and good humor, help. Maybe, I’ll learn I’m right where I’m meant to be.

Several years ago, when my sons and I were in Hong Kong, we took a bus to Lantau Island. We climbed the endless steep steps to the top of the hill where a huge, seated bronze Buddha sat on a lotus throne and stared with impenetrable serenity toward the horizon. Alex said that Buddhists believe life is a struggle and the human condition one of pain and suffering. The way to reach nirvana lies not in holding onto relationships, or anything worldly, but in letting go.Warm breezes from the Sea of China mingled with the scent of incense, as monks prayed and mediated by the Buddha.

Writing is a way of letting go, of absorbing pain and moving on. It is my survival guide, my traveling companion.  I’m writing this now before heading to the airport.

As a writer, you look for a moonlit night thousands of miles from home, a conversation in a pub filled with old geezers and young people, alike.The notebook waits, pulled out of a suitcase. Thoughts and impressions jotted down. A memory, a moment, write it so you won’t forget. And I’ll think of my grandmother, how her life began in England, where I now travel.
Susan in Westport, New Zealand

See you in a couple weeks.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Dog Days of Summer and the Writing Life





It’s been hot here—a scorcher. The dog days of summer—literally, and figuratively. Just Lily and me, limiting our walks to shade behind the house.

I head to the pool ... turquoise-cool waters shimmer and beckon—and then—enter the pool Nazi! (Remember the Seinfeld 'soup Nazi' episode?)

You know who I mean. The one screaming strict regimentation. You’re in the laps lane and she is moving like a torpedo, plastic yellow flippers flailing, sinewy arms slicing the water, goggled eyes deep underwater, and then she hits you with said flippers and splashing arms. You ask if she might remove the flippers. Instead, she tells you that you violated pool etiquette, pool rules, because you didn’t make known to her you were about to have the temerity to enter the pool and begin your own laps.

“You’re supposed to wait. I didn’t even see you,” she spits out. “But I can’t move as fast as you. It wouldn’t matter,” I protest. At which point she repeats pool etiquette, as if I embody her recipe for rudeness.

I could dismiss her as some frustrated mom/overworked career woman taking out her angst in a public pool, but, instead of telling her to sod off—as the British would say—I don’t want a scene at the place where I spend four days a week exercising. I’m going to let it go. Besides, it’s too hot; not worth the energy.

“Do you want to move into this lane?” a woman in her forties, wearing a broad-brimmed pink straw hat asks. She appears to be wading, not swimming. Thank you, I say. The pool Nazi ignores us and goes back to her furious laps.

I admit I’ve been feeling a bit stumped of late as to how to deal with the outrageousness and incivility going on out there. It makes me want to curl up with a good book with the rotating fan swaying in the living room, Lily sleeping at my feet. When people push you aside, tell you to move over, or ignore you because you fail “pool etiquette,” it marginalizes any hope of a human connection, let alone a civil conversation.

Later that afternoon, I go outside, still in my bathing suit, spray Lily with the garden hose, rub a dollop or two of Pert shampoo into her tawny-colored coat. I hold the hose away from her face, but close enough to splash cold water on her head. She closes her eyes in obedience and generosity of goodwill toward me, her human, for this indignity. I take a towel and gently wipe the inside of her ears. A dog is so simple.


Last year I taught a writing workshop on the art of the personal essay. Maybe it’s time I started writing those essays; seeing if I can get them published in the newspaper; or writing politically-charged missives on this blog? Writing my angst, my disgust, my disapproval of people and their atrocious behavior. No. This takes more effort than I can muster. Instead, I’ll keep working on my novel, crafting a scene, working the characters, like a potter at her wheel, a Labrador Retriever at her feet.

I can imagine a new story, a way to play with words, construct sentences. An email from a writer in the Women’s Writing Circle lands in my mailbox. She shares a story she wrote the night before when she couldn’t sleep. It’s amusing, imaginative, it inspires me to write.

I call Lily. We step out onto the deck. I feel the sun on my face. It’s still scorching out. Like my father used to say, this too shall pass … and summer’s dog days will be replaced soon enough with the cool breezes of autumn. But, for now, the heat is on. “C’mon girl, let’s go in,” I say to Lily, where the fan beckons. Best to keep cool.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Writing Our Remorse: 'The Sense of An Ending'


Remorse and taking stock of our smug attitudes about people is the theme of The Sense of An Ending, Julian Barnes’ novel, which in 2011 won the Man Booker Prize. A potent story told in 165 pages (and made into a movie in 2017), the novel offers yet another portrait of people who suffer from the errors of their past.

I've been on a Julian Barnes reading kick this summer. Here's my review of his new novel, The Only Story. (Last summer, I focused on May Sarton with this review of her memoirs.)

Remorse is defined as deep guilt for a wrong committed. As a writer, I identify. Remorse played a major role in writing my memoirs and my novel. There appeared no way to undo the wrong committed … guilt and shame don’t go far enough. Remorse, some say, is living with the wrong you committed, year after year, but hoping to find atonement.

How? In my case, through writing. I wrote Again in a Heartbeat to understand, and, maybe, forgive myself for my presumptions of what life is supposed to be, not how it is. My memories of that time were—and still are—acute. I realize now I acted unthinkingly, sometimes out of anger, sometimes out of wounded pride, sometimes out of deeply felt confusion and grief that I couldn’t save him. As I wrote my memoir, I learned much about myself and the healing began.

Remorse strikes Tony Webster, the main character in The Sense of An Ending. Tony is “settled” … doesn't step outside his comfort zone. Then the past pays an unwelcome visit. A middle-aged Tony learns of the suicide of a close childhood friend, Adrian, forcing Tony to reexamine a hate-filled, vindictive letter he wrote to Adrian after college. The letter has resurfaced in Adrian’s diary, left to him by the mother of Adrian’s lover and Tony’s old girlfriend, Veronica.

“Remorse, etymologically, is the action of biting again: that’s what the feeling does to you. Imagine the strength of the bite when I reread my words,” Tony says of the letter.

I had a swath of my past to reevaluate, with nothing but remorse for company.”

Adrian’s suicide confounds Tony, especially when he learns the motivation. It is the same as Robeson, another classmate—one not as “smart” as Adrian—who also committed suicide after getting a girl pregnant. Now, Tony understands that Adrian, the "philosopher friend" he once idolized, was "no more than a version of Robeson."

How do we categorize people? Write them off, as this or that? Fail to understand someone? And how does this mount up over a lifetime? Writes Barnes: “There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.” 

It's like hoarding. Stuff mixed up with stuff with stuff. It seems to me the "unrest," the remorse, comes from this: Why weren't we kinder, more understanding, less invested in our own egos? 

And what about Veronica? In college, Tony found her insufferable, a “tease,” emotionally inaccessible …“damaged.” When they break up and she gets together with Adrian, Tony writes both of them off. Now, forty years later, the mean-spirited letter and Adrian’s diary bring them together in a way that allows Tony reflection and reevaluation of his view of women falling into two categories: "mysterious", like Veronica, or uncomplicated and "straightforward" like his ex-wife, Margaret. There's a lot of hidden humor in the way Barnes writes this story.

How does a book like this teach us about our own lives? Divisiveness and civility—or lack thereof—make the news on a daily basis, resulting in painting people as “the other.” 

What we learn from The Sense of An Ending is keep trying, keep open to acknowledging our weakness and flaws, as well as those in others … that is, if we are to quiet the unrest, and maybe find that atonement we seek.This is all fertile territory for the writer whose job is to go beyond, to question, to understand the very nature of who we are and how, in so many ways, we are all alike.