Monday, February 8, 2016

The 'Artist's Way': Reaching Out To the Public

When I self-published my memoir Again in a Heartbeat, I did so for a couple reasons. As an unknown author who wasn’t a celebrity, writing a memoir without “mainstream” or sensationalized appeal would probably not attract an agent or a publishing company. This proved true when I floated the synopsis of my book to several publishing companies – notably one that featured women’s stories – and was turned down without even a request to see the manuscript.

I also enjoyed having complete creative control over my work.

Again in a Heartbeat – trade paperback or ebook – has gone on to sell or reach over 16,000 readers.

Fast forward five years since that book came out and I am fairly well known within certain memoir and writing circles. Through my own writing imprint – Writing Circle Press – I've published three books, two memoirs and a novel.

A writer can't depend on mainstream appeal or acceptance by the gatekeepers. Just like talking heads and pundits in the news media, gatekeepers pull out the "long knives" of criticism and deem themselves worthy of what is considered “art” and what isn’t, often with a subjective agenda.

The artist follows her own journey, believes in her work and keeps working and writing. Achieving fame and fortune is not the artist’s way . . . reaching the public is no matter how accomplished.

That's why I love visiting DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun.

A mud adobe hut in the middle of the Sonoran Desert in Tucson, this gallery often attracts me during my winter writing retreats in Arizona.

 For years, Ted DeGrazia struggled to earn a living. Although his work was featured in galleries in Mexico, the public generally ignored him, galleries here rejected him and art critics had little good to say about him.

Whether you like his work or not, DeGrazia's dedication to his craft is legendary. His routine began by going to the studio at 4 a.m. and finishing at 11 p.m. In the end, “success” came when Hallmark and UNICEF reproduced his work as Christmas and greeting cards.

DeGrazia built his gallery to show work that hadn't sold. It brims with ceramics and paintings whose subjects are as diverse as Yaki deer headdresses and rattles, Native American children dancing in a circle, the passion and crucifixion of Christ, cactus blooms and road runners. Before he died, DeGrazia made sure the museum would remain free and open to the public, his legacy for future generations to enjoy his artistic vision.

From Wikipedia:
DeGrazia remembered well the criticism he received in those early days from people who thought his art wasn't any good. Individuals did not like how DeGrazia followed his own rules in regards to art. On one occasion, DeGrazia was sitting in Rosita's Mexican restaurant (located next to his gallery) and a man walked in and shouted to him from across the room. He said," Hey! You DeGrazia?!" DeGrazia did not reply, and kept talking with his friend. The man, who obviously did not like DeGrazia, strode over to DeGrazia's table and interrupted him. He said to DeGrazia, "You're that guy who thinks you can paint on whatever you want, right? No rules, you just do whatever you want!"

Risk-taking, breaking rules and challenging traditional stereotypes often produce hostility and outrage. The independent writer who believes in her work and has faith in her creative vision may identify with this.

As a writer, I am inspired by a gallery that showcases not just art, but the belief in ourselves; truly “a place in the sun.”

What are challenges you’ve encountered creating and publishing your work?  How do you hope to reach the public?

Monday, February 1, 2016

Leaving 'Home' Inspires The Writer's Story

I rarely saw my mother leave the safe haven of her home without my father. She raised two children, drove to the food store, dabbled in volunteer work, took a part time job to earn self-described "pin money," and waited for my father to come home to start dinner.

Finally, when my parents were in their 50s – my father’s work offered the opportunity to board the SS United States and take their first trip to Europe. When they returned, thrilled with the journey of sailing across the Atlantic and seeing the great cities, they embarked on several trips to Europe. The travel bug – although belated – had bitten and those trips represented high points of their lives.

But traveling alone like I do? It was simply out of the question for Mother, although once she boarded an Amtrak train to Washington DC by herself to visit me in college, something I wrote about in my memoir Morning at Wellington Square. That trip was an anomaly. She was too timid, too fearful to do anything without her husband.

As Gloria Steinem writes in her memoir: My Life on the Road:
Home can also be a "dangerous place" for many reasons, not the least of which is that it can breed complacency and destroy curiosity. Perhaps the most revolutionary act, as Steinem suggests, is a "self-willed journey". Whether we leave the comfort of our homes or not, the writer's quest is cultivating an adventurous spirit.

When I was 21, I boarded a flight on Pan Am to London. I soon learned that traveling alone could be as lonely as exhilarating. But mostly, I realized that if I wanted to learn more about life, I would need to get out of  my comfort zone and hit the road.

The death of my husband and my life as a widow – after I raised my sons – allowed me to become a solo traveler and fulfilled a lifelong dream that began when I was 21.  Or maybe I was living the unfulfilled life of my mother.

On a recent trip to Prescott, Arizona, I walked into a bookstore . . . one of those places where a sense of community is pervasive. The bookstore owner's small dog sat behind the register.

I have always loved fridge magnets. I’ve picked up many on my travels. I can’t tell you how many times they inspired comments. A favorite is one I bought on Long Beach Island, New Jersey. A woman in gingham apron wags her finger at two little girls in pigtails and warns, “Just remember the more you do, the more they expect.”

In this store in Prescott, I saw dozens of magnets displayed on a kiosk. Two stood out. As I went to the register to pay for them, the clerk, a man a little younger than me with unruly white hair down to his shoulders, grinned, “Love these,” he said.

I was surprised as I have often steeled myself for the Hillary Haters. But he said he loved the depiction of her as Rosie the Riveter. And he also loved the one about writing because "it wasn’t meant to be taken literally, but figuratively.” I knew that, too, which is why I selected it.

We got to talking about risk-taking in writing, about politics and about the history of Prescott. It felt energizing to be 2,500 miles from home, in a small town about an hour from the Grand Canyon, chatting with a perfect stranger and finding a connection.

Writing energizes, it opens new possibilities, teaches us important lessons.

What does it mean to have an adventurous spirit? How does travel translate into our writing lives?

Monday, January 25, 2016

Does One Simplistic Marketing Message Hobble Your Book?

This past week I saw Room. The movie is based on the bestselling novel by Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue and has been nominated for best picture of the year. I had heard jokes about the nomination – the movie “no one saw.” While critical reviews gave the movie 5-stars, it had pulled in a meager amount at the box office.

Apparently, the problem has been in how to market the movie . . . coming up with a simplistic message for a complex story.

Which begs the question: Does marketing one or two simplistic messages hobble your book as a work of art? (Assuming, of course, you consider your book to be art . . . a unique creative expression.)

My feeling . . . yes, it does.

In the article the Marketing Quest to Turn Room Into a Populist Hit, the film’s distributors state:
“Even synopses became a problem. When people would talk about the film to their friends, the question is always: ‘What is that movie about?’ And as soon as you say, ‘Oh, it’s a woman who’s in captivity who’s had a child’ – like, everything else you say seems to not matter. They focus on that.”

“We tried to figure out, how do you shape the conversation? And how do you start to communicate that this is actually about a mother’s love, and that it’s about the child’s love for his mother as much as it’s about what’s happened to them?”

Isn’t this what often happens to authors? We’ve written a book with several compelling themes, yet we’re supposed to distill our marketing message to one or two pithy sentences, turns of phrase . . . in hopes of attracting readers to buy our books.

After I wrote my memoirs and my novel, attempting to come up with a simple marketing message was harder than writing the actual books!

I often felt hobbled by trying to develop a concise 'one-liner.'

This was particularly true with my novel, A Portrait of Love and Honor, a novel based on a true story. All the marketing advice I read kept telling me to “find my audience” or “target your audience" . . . "be clear about your genre classification." 
But what happens when your “audience” is somewhat indefinable . . . amorphous? When memoirs and stories appeal to both genders, different age groups, readers who enjoy a variety of genres.

Apparently, a succinct message challenges even seasoned filmmakers.

I'm feeling that boxing in a serious book with a simplistic marketing message is the stuff of social media and the condescending notion that audiences can’t comprehend something more complex.

Maybe here's what we can do:
  • Concentrate less on the marketing hype and more on our job as a writer to create a good story with many themes. Whether 10 people or 10,000 people read your book, a good book eventually sparks good critical reviews and ultimately solves the "discoverability" factor.

  • Shape the “conversation”/perspectives about your book through a series of conversations: (blog posts, talks at signings, encounters with people who ask what your story is about) – not just one 'conversation'. I have tried this by emphasizing many themes in my books. I wanted to make sure people understood Again in a Heartbeat, for example, wasn't just a "cancer memoir," but also a love story. 

  • Make your story a rewarding, multi-faceted experience for your readers. 

After I finished viewing Room, I continued to think about the story long after I left the theater. Numerous questions and issues are raised . . .what motherhood means, those who would shame a woman for having a child out of wedlock (even one held in captivity and raped), how to come to terms with the outside world.

Maybe that's the message . . . there isn't one, but many . . . a great story defies categorization and leaves it up to the reader - the moviegoer - to decide.
What experiences have you had in marketing your book or work-in-progress? Do you feel hobbled by the emphasis on coming up with just one or two sentences describing your work? If not, why not? Your thoughts and comments are most welcomed.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Is Memoir Vanity or An Act of Love?

Not everyone understands why some write their memoirs. They dismiss it as narcissistic vanity. Why write something so personal they ask? Who cares?

Stories are my passion so I am biased that writing the truth of our stories is an act of love. In telling our stories, we accept our own imperfections, our flaws and our gifts.  Hopefully, we bring to the conversation something which “speaks to” – maybe even enlightens – all of us. This is the alchemy, the magic – the transmutation – of life story writing: taking the chemical element that is lead and turning it into gold.

That said, not everyone is fascinated with hearing the truth. And writing our stories doesn’t mean you hold the keys to truth, rather your truth, pardon the overused expression in the memoir community.

In my own memoir Again in a Heartbeat, I didn’t glamorize myself or my marriage with John. I might have even taken it too far – becoming the “villain” for screaming at my dying husband – “I wish I’d never met you!”.

It was an act of bravery for me to reveal how much pain I was in at the prospect of imminent loss by portraying my own vulnerability in hopes it might give others going through a similar journey the knowledge they're not alone.

As writers we take on the role of “truth speaker.” Yet, we know what often happened to those. They were burned at the stake. Still, this is our goal as writers. To speak the truth as best we can, to move out of the way and let the message resonate with our readers.

This "confidence of voice" has been especially challenging for women.

In Lena Dunham’s bestselling memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, a young woman tells you what she’s ‘learned’, she writes:
"There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman. As hard as we have worked and as far as we have come, there are still so many forces conspiring to tell women that our concerns are petty, our opinions aren’t needed, that we lack the gravitas necessary for our stories to matter. That personal writing by women is no more than an exercise in vanity and that we should appreciate this new world for women, sit down, and shut up.”
Silencing confident women remains prevalent.

So . . . not only do writers need to think outside the box, but how their stories might be in service to others as a way to help others speak.  In my memoir, Morning at Wellington Square, I tried to portray coming to terms with loss by giving back, using my gifts and talents in community.This became the Women's Writing Circle, a group which I believe - and hope - offers women a chance to share their stories in camaraderie and support, as well as offer an instructional environment in the craft of writing.

There is a great deal of difference between self-love and excessive interest in oneself.

I have either led or been in writing groups where writers forgo their talents and insights to rant about past hurts or wounds. They get so caught up in anger, they forget to honor the healing aspects of their stories. Like a two-year-old child demanding attention, they indulge in the narcissism of “me, me, me” . . .

Religious mystics and contemplatives have always known this: the deeper you go, the more you spiral both down and up in your journey.

The creative medium that is writing leads to awakening - and opens the writer to the great possibility of connecting with others. It's a joy and maybe even the ultimate act of love.

Artwork today and last week on this blog by Philadelphia/Tucson artist Marcie Feldman.

Your thoughts and comments are most welcomed.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Adventurous 'Life Unexpected' of the Writer

What risks have you taken as a writer? Has your sense of adventure led you “home”. . . or has your adventurousness idled by the roadside, grounding you to one barren and stagnant place?

As I wrote on this blog last week, women writers are creating an anthology with stories and poems that frame the life unexpected . . .

What happened that you never saw coming and how did that change your life?

As writers we explore the "life unexpected". . . its surprises—welcome or unwelcome—unplanned adventures, twists and turns that lead to new discoveries and personal revelations in changing and challenging times.

This "mantra" brings me “home” to Arizona.

How could I know, Arizona, that you would lead me through all the losses? The loss of the whisper of expectation that comes with a new morning; the resignation when possibilities of love begin to fade like a withered rose with age.

In the distance the Catalina Mountains this January morning are covered with a lacy shawl of clouds. For the past 10 years I’ve traveled from the frigid winters of Pennsylvania where it got dark early and left me alone with my thoughts, to this place in the sun.

The Southwest called me like so many wanderers and adventurous and brave women before me. Remember Georgia O’Keeffe?

Here I could forget . . . seek rest from the losses. My husband's gentle touch, my brother's joking voice, my mother's throaty laugh, my father's serene blue eyes.

I think of my mother . . . some might call her a foolish, timid woman, myself included. Mother wouldn't have traveled like I, alone in my sixth decade to a place like this, the exotic, the desert, few friends, no rigid schedule that must be adhered, just soft morning light, fuchsia bougainvillea in bloom, a wizened old lady carrying all her belongings in a plastic shopping bag slowly making her way down Oracle Road.

What surprised me was when I looked in the mirror and saw my mother. Even my hands have begun to look like hers, worn and wrinkled now from years of washing dishes, tending gardens, cleaning house, cleaning up after children.

I remember being seven years old . . . running through an open field of Queen Anne’s lace on a July morning near Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. Like other little girls – like my mother and her mother before her, I dreamed of castles in the sky, men on white horses . . .

For women of my generation, trailblazing meant the uncharted territory of feminism. I planned to travel the world, embark on a meaningful career, maybe, if I was lucky, raise a family. Do it all! How could I know time and circumstances would wear me down – a big black wave washing over me as the losses mounted.

Then I was back in the sunlight, back in Arizona. Tucson – a contrast of unrivaled mountainous and desert splendor, poverty of the homeless and the disenfranchised. Here in moonlit canyons and starlit skies reaching as far as the eye can see, in breath-taking "postcard" sunrises, I am home – back to Susan.
“The art of losing isn't hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” ~ Elizabeth Bishop, American poet.

Our Women’s Writing Circle, our writing, leads us to memories that invoke powerful connections with others . . .we write about our perceptions of the world, as much as our feelings. We write our history, our baggage. This is the promise, the risk and the adventure of writing our stories. We conquer the losses.

I wish this for you, fellow writers. Take a risk! Indulge in an adventure, shake it up . . . and explore the life unexpected.

What risks have  you taken with your writing? What stories came unexpectedly but begged to be told? Your comments, thoughts, most welcome.

Monday, January 4, 2016

A New Year, New Writing, A New Anthology

With endings come beginnings. As we welcome in 2016, the Women’s Writing Circle is embarking on a new creative journey . . . a collaboration with Just Write, a writing group here in the Philadelphia area. Together we are writing an anthology of memoirs, creative non-fiction, fiction and poems, tentatively titled Life Unexpected.

Could we ever imagine where our lives would lead us? This question offers a framework and synopsis of our book; a contemporary and modern insight into women's lives, women's voices.
We plan. We dream. We imagine and say, ‘what if'. Then one day something - or maybe everything - changes. How did you get where you are now?

What happened that you never saw coming and how did that change your life? This rich anthology explores the "life unexpected". . . its surprises—welcome or unwelcome—unplanned adventures, twists and turns that lead to new discoveries and personal revelations in changing and challenging times.

“The art of life is not controlling what happens to us, but using what happens to us." ~ Gloria Steinem

Our first collaboration, Slants of Light: Stories and Poems From the Women’s Writing Circle, was released in April 2013. Written by 15 women writers, this anthology provided an avenue to share our memoirs, poetry and fiction at signings and talks in the community – and call ourselves published authors. Our voices rang with confidence and clarity.

Yesterday, in the afternoon light of wintertime, several of us charged with crafting the framework of this new book met at the office of Citizen Advocacy, a nonprofit located in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, of which our anthology core committee member, Ginger Murphy, is coordinator.

Patty Kline-Capaldo, who heads up Just Write, which meets weekly in an independent bookstore in Collegeville, enthusiastically engaged in bringing new writers from her group onboard, as well as researching publishing options for our book. Also serving on our core committee are authors, Rae Theodore and Maureen Barry.

Ginger and Patty

Life Unexpected has generated interest among 23 possible contributors, many of them members of the Women's Writing Circle . . . dedicated and talented writers who contributed to Slants of Light. A letter with contract detailing deadlines for submission and editing is coming out soon.

The collaborative aspects we enjoyed yesterday brought back memories of my days at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Reporters and editors worked together as a team to bring news and narratives to the reading public. Each provided individual and unique talents and strengths. I am passionate about this work and love brainstorming with kindred spirits and writers.

We live in a world too often in the shadow of despair, depression and anxiety. Tending and cherishing our creative lives – watering our gardens along the pilgrim’s way – is one of the great gifts life offers. A new year offers new writing, a new you . . .

“It is for us to pray not for tasks equal to our powers, but for powers equal to our tasks, to go forward with a great desire forever beating at the door of our hearts as we travel toward our distant goal.” ~ Helen Keller 
Your comments, questions and thoughts are most welcomed.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Women's Writing Circle and Looking Toward A New Year

We're all struggling and we do our best to manage. As Bob Dylan said, we're looking for that "shelter from the storm."
Writing, along with a place to support other women, is that shelter.

All of us are truckin' on. The Circle plays a rewarding role in that challenge and journey and I intend to do all I can to keep our space thriving and meaningful. While women are often harder on other women than they are on men, friendship among women is fierce and vibrant. It is ongoing throughout our lives. We are bound together by a shared experience that a man can never truly appreciate.

Our final read around for 2015 was inspiring and energizing. Our voices and stories rang with humor, joy, sadness and the amazing and adventurous journey of the feminine.

Together we empower and offer each other a bit of sustenance necessary in this life to keep on living . . . one day at a time, one foot in front of another.
In May we left our “home” of five years, Wellington Square Bookshop. (We had outgrown the space there). We moved to the privacy of the reading room at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church. 

We kept reading, writing and sharing. We worked toward healing, finding our voice, making the reader what poet Mary Oliver calls "the experiencer."

Writing is a lifeline, an escape from the boredom, the tedium of every day living and a respite from those we must endure.
Two years ago I wrote a blog post Every Writer Needs a Bit of 'Paris'. It became one of the most popular blog posts on this site. For me, Arizona is a place to renew and restore. I'm leaving in January, but will be back in March to continue with our Circle. January 9 read around will be held at the beautiful West Chester home of  long-time Women's Writing Circle contributor Diane Yannick. We will not meet in February.

In the coming weeks, I'll be announcing changes to the Women's Writing Circle. Passing around the envelope has made me feel a bit like a money collector and I prefer not to do that anymore. Finding the best location that meets the needs of our writers and is affordable continues to be a challenge.

Changes in 2016 will include a new location and annual membership dues to participate in Women's Writing Circle read arounds, critiques and workshops. Stay tuned through our newsletter.

Mary Oliver also said that writers often give up what is "most strange and wonderful about their writing - soften their roughest edges to accommodate themselves toward the group response . . ." The Circle remains a safe haven where, hopefully, we don't ever have to do that.

So to all the wonderful writers who make the Circle that necessary life raft and shelter from the storm, a very Happy New Year from Lily and me.
Your thoughts, comments and reflections are most welcomed