Monday, December 5, 2016

Writing Beyond Fear: 'Just Write'

Our About the Author series for The Life Unexpected: An Anthology of Stories and Poems continues with Patty Kline-Capaldo. Patty hosts Just Write, a Collegeville, Pennsylvania writing group that collaborated with the Women's Writing Circle to create the anthology. She shares in this essay the 'story behind the story' of  "My Father's Daughter," a memoir piece she wrote for the collection.

When we first settled on a theme for a new anthology about the unexpected twists and turns of life, half a dozen story ideas ran through my mind. I made lists, I journaled, I started drafts on a few subjects. I tried to convince myself that I could follow through on any one of them, when in reality, I knew which one it had to be. I even met with a group of writers for a brainstorming session on topics we wanted to write about. I told them straight out, “I know which story I have to write, but I don’t want to.”

Why was I so resistant to writing about the one thing that had consumed so much of my life for the past seven years—assuming the role of caregiver for my father and stepmother? I believe it is essential to be real, even raw, in my writing. To do that I would need to reveal some unflattering truths about myself and my family. Welcome to memoir.

A quote by Nayyirah Waheed inspired me to press through my fears and write the story that wanted to be told: "The thing you are most afraid to write. Write that."

When my stepmother had a stroke in 2009, much of my life became about communicating with doctors, driving to appointments, managing medications, handling the stress of their multiple falls, and trying to convince them to move to a safer environment. But when I read my journals from that time period, my struggles were all about attempting to hang on to normalcy, trying to maintain a writing practice, focusing on my goals and desires instead of focusing on them.

I was afraid of hurting my father or damaging my relationship with him. Dad didn’t want anything published about him. He was humble and self-conscious and feared that old friends would accuse him of thinking he was better than they were. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him I was writing this story. I wasn’t even sure I would tell him after it was published.

How did I get past my reservations and get to the heart of the story? Just Write—I started writing thoughts, memories, emotions. This is my normal practice that I’ve learned over the years, thanks in large part to National Novel Writing Month. The key is to keep writing, fast enough to outrun the inner critic and the censor that wants to stop me from getting to the core of what matters. Then edit and refine and make it shine.

What emerged for me was the truth that, in spite of the stress and struggles of caregiving for an elderly parent, I found gratitude—for the time I was able to spend with him, for the ways I was able to make his life easier, for the stories he told.


My stepmother had passed away a few years before I wrote my story for The Life Unexpected, so it was just Dad and me. My sister lives in Florida, and she has Mom on her hands.

When I met with that group of writers, trying to decide which story to write, a man I hadn’t met before asked how old my father was. When I told him ninety-seven, he said, “Well, by the time the story’s published, he’ll probably be gone.” It was a cold and heartless statement, but it turned out to be accurate. Dad passed away on August 29th, just days before the anthology went to the publisher.

Now that he’s gone, I wish he could read it. I would welcome that battle with him if he could only see the lessons he taught me, and the pride and thankfulness I feel as “My Father’s Daughter.”

How about you? Have you written beyond your fears, and, if so, how do that feel?


Patty Kline-Capaldo is a writer, teacher, and creativity coach. Her passion is supporting writers and visual artists in their creative endeavors. Patty hosts two Meetup groups, where writers and artists gather for instruction, mutual encouragement, and inspiration: Just Write (http://www.meetup.com/Just-Write-in-Collegeville-PA) and The Artist’s Way Circle (http://www.meetup.com/The-Artists-Way-Circle-in-Collegeville-PA/). She has also taught writing classes at Chester County Night School.

Patty earned her BA degree in Journalism and History from Indiana University and teacher certification from Ursinus College. She lives in Pottstown, PA, with her husband, Rich, and their three cats—Sarah, Splash, and Snapple.

Read Patty’s blog at http://pattyklinecapaldo.com/blog/.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Life Unexpected Reveals Taboos and Truths

An element of courage can never be discounted when writing about ‘the life unexpected.' The desire to tell the truth stokes the fire within the writer to reveal the ‘taboos’ that make story both inspiring and instructional for writer and reader.

I’ll let you judge, but the stories in The Life Unexpected: An Anthology of Stories and Poems, released this week, speak for themselves. Open yourself to the “twists and turns” of ‘ordinary' lives that take an unexpected trajectory . . . told in the voices of your friends and neighbors; your lovers and confidantes; your sisters and daughters.

Forget stereotypes – this is no Ozzie and Harriet Land - and enter a world where a young woman moves beyond gender identity; a mother’s bigotry destroys her daughter’s chance at happiness; a drunk driver leaves his soul behind on a dark Colorado night; a woman's affair with a married man shines light on a spiritually bereft life; a 'vision quest' portends the coming self-help movement.

This is real stuff, not some pap that most of the book world foists off on us.

For all sixteen of us who contributed to this project begun last spring, The Life Unexpected meant writing out of the comfort zone. This is women finding the freedom of voice in the written and published word.

The Life Unexpected is the third anthology in the last four years I have participated. I love the possibilities of the anthology. In this era of publishing opportunities, an anthology is an eclectic offering of published and unpublished writers, showcasing budding talent and giving new writers a “leg up” on a writing resume. The anthology is a creative collective built around a unifying theme.

Maybe more than the other two anthologies  (Slants of Light and My Gutsy Story Anthology), this book reflects changing attitudes and lifestyles about those things often considered better left unsaid. These are the secrets buried beneath the ‘taboos’ of a repressive society that discourages women from voice and the truth of their lives.

That’s why I’m so proud of this book. Along with Rae Theodore, Ginger Murphy, Patty Kline-Capaldo and Maureen Barry, I had the privilege to edit this collection of prose and poetry.

In my fictional short story, "Lydia’s Choice," an older woman reminisces about important turning points, including her decision to terminate a pregnancy before marriage when she was a young woman. The abortion is a shameful secret she has shared with only a handful of people, fearing that she will be judged harshly for her choice.

As she looks back on her life, Lydia has raised a son on her own, accepting that no one person can rescue her, least of all a poor choice. She makes a conscious choice to be the best parent she can. This is the most sacred of covenants. Her child did not ask to be born.

The story behind "Lydia’s Choice" is one I needed to tell for a while, both for personal and political reasons. It continues in the tradition of the women's journey I have embarked on in the last six years through my creative writing. In this essay Freeing the Writer and the Woman, I wrote about my stories in Slants of Light: Stories and Poems from the Women's Writing Circle.

Who is Lydia? I imagine her walking a wooded path, alone, as sunlight filters dusky shafts through trees; a strong woman, she often questions herself. Like many women, she once loved deeply and suffered heartbreak. Like many women, she knows it has always been up to her to make the most of the life unexpected, to honor her choices and move forward. Like many women, she understands that having a baby is ultimately a woman's choice.

Stories offer connections and hope that we are not alone. Let The Life Unexpected make you cry and nod with recognition that perhaps (no doubt!), you, too, have taken this journey.

Throughout the month our authors will continue to share their ‘stories behind the stories’ in The Life Unexpected. Order here a signed copy of the anthology through the Women's Writing Circle.

Visit Susan G. Weidener's author page.

The Life Unexpected: An Anthology of Stories and Poems, created by sixteen writers from the Philadelphia area, offers diverse perspectives and experiences of women’s lives as told through fiction, memoir and poetry. In this compact collection, life’s surprises and revelations along the journey of ‘the life unexpected’ are revealed, offering a new way of looking at the world. The book contains 10 beautiful black and white photographs that enhance the prose and poetry. Two Philadelphia-area writing groups, the Women’s Writing Circle and Just Write, collaborated on The Life Unexpected (Lucky Stars Publishing). Proceeds benefit the Women’s National Book Association, a nonprofit promoting reading, and Women’s Writing Circle, a support and critique group for women writers.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Marking Milestones and Memories Through Memoir

Growing up, growing old . . . death; these memories and milestones cultivate story for the writer. Elaine Eggermann Allen shares hers as she writes about her father's decline and the death of beloved pets as our About the Author Series for The Life Unexpected continues.




I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read. According to my parents, I started reading when I was four; not surprising as I was surrounded by a family who read while watching TV, on the beach, in the car, eating dinner, even in the bathroom. But writing didn’t take root until college when I was required to interpret what I had read. Much to my delight, I discovered a wealth of ideas and words readily available from all those years of reading.

Filling the writing void after graduating was Women Reading Aloud, a supportive group of women who read and listened to each other's written words, commenting on only the positive. It was a wonderful way to learn what you were doing wrong through the omission of critique. This was followed by the Women's Writing Circle where encouragement to be genuine and fearless in the words put to paper offered me the opportunity to participate in The Life Unexpected.

An unyielding search for joy and the many surprising sources of gratitude are the underlying correlation between “The Disappearance of Pete,” and my prose poem, “Awakened,” which are included in the anthology.

Raised in a household dealing with depression makes you wary of everyone and everything. You never know when a happy moment can turn into a nightmare. Moments of joy become buried and blurred under fear of doing something that will set things off.

"The Disappearance of Pete" could not have been written at a different time in my life, or my father’s.

I was well into my twenties before I understood what it took for my father to raise four kids while struggling with his demons; in my thirties before we spoke about it, and in my forties before he understood the effect his anger had on us. He was well into his sixties before anger wasn't his first response to anything out-of-the-ordinary; his seventies before he realized he was getting older and could no longer do the things he had always done; his eighties when his real strength shone through as he dealt with cancer and the death of my mom, his rock; his nineties before he had to stop working and dementia started to take his mind.

 “Awakened” is part love story, part realization of mortality.

In my neighborhood, I am known as the ‘dog lady.’ When my husband and I moved to Pennsylvania with three dogs, we installed an electric fence, trained the dogs, and played with them in the yard to give them exercise and us the joy of watching their antics. Then we realized our huskey was more interested in chasing squirrels and foxes through the fence than the pain she experienced doing it; our Labrador retriever learned to start running about halfway through the yard and then jumped over the fence, feeling nothing at all! After many drives around the neighborhood (and a neighbor putting up a physical fence to keep our lab out), I started walking the dogs.

We said goodbye to our huskey, Penny, at 13, due to the effects of dementia; our lab, Mojo, at 12 due to the effects of seizures; our toy poodle, at 12, from heart failure, and our beagle, Molly, at 13, from intestinal issues. Our current four-legged children are 13 and five year-old miniature poodles, Beau and Checkers, and an eight-year-old havenese, Honey. Four of our dogs have been rescues - such a misnomer - the humans are rescued at least as much as the dogs.

Whether human or animal, living beings go through stages. If we are lucky, we find and mark the joy at each of those stages. Watching my father, always a physically strong man, fail physically and mentally has been horrible. Watching our dogs age and fail has been equally challenging. But the realization of the wonderful tiny moments, the ones we can miss if we are not paying attention, the utter joy in the mundane events of our everyday lives, are gifts that can be unwrapped, over and over again, until our minds age and fail and memories fade.

How about you? Have you marked your memories and milestones through memoir and can you share what that felt like?

Elaine Eggermann Allen is a freelance writer and poet. Although an avid reader, Elaine contemplated writing only after a college professor suggested she pursue it as a career. Stephen R. Donaldson, Geraldine Brooks, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert, Walter M. Miller, Walter Wangerin, Jr., Nora Roberts and Ann Patchett are among the authors whose words paint the vivid pictures, irony, and wonder that inspire her. As is true with many late bloomers, Elaine started college in her 30s, graduated and found love in her 40s, and realized life-long learning is a worthy goal in her 50s. She is a member of the Women’s Writing Circle and Women Reading Aloud. The pieces found in The Life Unexpected will be her first published writing.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Going 'Off Script' in the Women's Writing Circle

When I started the Women’s Writing Circle, I thought maybe I could be at the beginning of something again. I wanted to spin out of the isolation of being a woman alone in the 'ho hum' culture of the suburbs, a place often defined by mediocrity and status quo.

I wanted a safe place, a sanctuary for women finding their voices after enduring loss, and seeking healing and renewal through writing.

For too long men had told our stories. Now it was time to tell our own.

Some said to me they didn’t see ‘the point’  of an all female writing group. “Why separate us from men?” Men, I answered, tend to dominate, which got back to the sanctuary, the safety of a sacred “container” for the feminine where no one is silenced or intimidated because she's female. In the end, though, I always left it up to the women. If they wanted men, we could include them. Time after time, the consensus was that something important would be lost if that happened.

The election, the events leading up to it, and the aftermath have only reinforced my thinking of how important it is for women to come together and find a place of healing and support through their creative lives.
  I opened the Circle on Saturday – our 7th anniversary as a writing group - to anyone who wanted to attend, so we could share, if we wanted, not just as women, but as citizens deeply troubled by bigotry, racism and misogyny. As always, I wasn’t let down. We mourned, we commiserated. After reading and listening, we brainstormed how to reach audiences through writing opinion pieces; becoming activists through any genre. "What do you think? Let me hear your thoughts."

We know writing our memoirs, our guest blog posts, our women's fiction, leads to exploration, and exploration to new discoveries. If not more accepting of the outcome of the election, we felt validated and motivated. Gathering around a lighted, aromatic candle works its magic. We left stronger, ready to take that long walk in the woods as Hillary had done and get on with it.

The evolution to the Women's Writing Circle, for me, was like many women's life journeys.
I found my voice for a time, and then lost it. Much of my youth I spent going “off script.” It felt cathartic at the moment. Then I watched the Equal Rights Amendment go down to defeat. I listened to my mother say “only men should be presidents.” When I went "off script," an insightfully candid remark didn’t go over well and led to an awkward silence. Somewhere along the line, I hardened. Grew weary of the same endless loop.

When it came to my career, I began breaking my silence only to confront the fact that being an outspoken woman in a male-dominated field often led to a slow death of receding opportunity. The work world mirrored the outside world; a ‘long slog’ against unfair odds for a woman over 40. But at least I took action. Regained a part of myself, spoke out and began going off script again.


I’m going to go “off script” here - now.
  It is something I wish Hillary had done more of, but we know the price smart and ambitious women pay. They can't be "trusted," and, finally, as Michael Moore said in his documentary, TrumpLand," she had taken so much abuse, she stopped trusting us to say what was happening in her heart.

Women who undermine powerful and ambitious women push me into a messy and complicated space; compassion coupled with frustration. Once we move off our “liberal East Coast cloud,” we realize that many women aren’t prepared for that highest glass ceiling to shatter. They still think a woman’s place is in the bedroom and the kitchen, not at the altar offering Communion. 

White men who complain they have been left behind; that it’s not their lack of ambition and training for why they don't earn a paycheck, disturb me with their sense of entitlement.

As my son, Alex, said, the election served as a window into a world many of us hoped had ended. “This country was built on the supremacy of the white male. Hillary was 10 years too soon." The youth of our country understand and I am listening.

I’m angry at myself for all the years I stayed “on script,” at least in my own head. I worried that my memoirs “offended the sensibilities” of others because I had been too open, too honest, too outspoken by writing that the world isn’t some happy-go-lucky place, but one of deep suffering.

I felt pressured and shamed when people told me to move on after John died. Like now. I feel grief. I AM NOT READY TO MOVE ON. I can't forget the misogynistic trolls, the cruelty she had to endure. However, I will continue to take action, use my God-given talents to make a difference. And yes, I will pray. And I will write. And I will join other women in the circle.

I saw a post on Facebook from a man – an author, who is outraged at what happened last Tuesday. He fears that just by being a white male, people will look at his face and suspect the worst. Are you one of them? One who supported the demagogue, he wrote? He’s angry about that, he says. He has a right to be.

I think of the young bartender, who, on Thursday night, openly expressed his disgust and revulsion for what happened. “How,” he asked, “could an experienced candidate ready to hit the ground running on Day One as president, who had spent years training for the job, lose to someone with no experience, whose own businesses went belly up and never had a kind word to say about anyone?” I like this bartender. He didn’t go off script once. He didn’t care what people thought. The youth of our country understand and I am listening and learning.

That's the power of our Women's Writing Circle. Not only do we support women going "off script," we encourage it. We honor it. We revel in the freedom of our voices. We listen, we learn and we keep the conversation moving forward. We are stronger together.

How about you? I would love to hear your thoughts either about going 'off script' with your writing or this historic election.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Diaries, Galaxies and The Life Unexpected

The writing life takes many detours and side trips, but one thing remains true. When we return to it, writing reveals a universe of new discovery and insight into the stories and people reflected in our lives. Our About the Author series for The Life Unexpected: An Anthology of Stories and Poems continues with Women's Writing Circle member and author Marilyn E. Lange.

****

I began writing in grade school – a simple diary which set a precedent for the future. In adulthood these diaries became an incentive. While reminding me of events from the past, they enabled me to revitalize them, as well as move forward to new ideas and experiences. I believe diaries can be springboards into new vistas.

During my thirties and forties I didn’t write much; my teaching career took up most of my time. In my early fifties I had a crisis – I became depressed and fed-up with everything. I wanted out – away from “this world.” But instead of feeling sorry for myself, I joined an astronomy club and built a telescope.

Support and guidance from members of this club enabled me to pursue astronomical projects – to learn about the night sky and to locate celestial objects with a telescope. I had always wondered, Where are the galaxies? Now I know. Even a small telescope will reveal sights invisible to the naked eye. The rings of Saturn can be seen with a small refractor of good quality. A large telescope will reveal much more.

When I joined the club’s “Telescope-Making Class,” I generated and then figured the primary mirror (ten inches in diameter) for a Dobsonian telescope, which can be moved by hand to any location in the sky. I also constructed the tube assembly for this, my “Emerald Telescope,” over the course of several years.

I have seen distant galaxies, double stars, planetary nebulae, moons of our gaseous planets, and even supernova remnants. These objects, too faint for naked eye observing, appear and take shape when viewed through the eyepiece of a good telescope. Hidden wonders are there – above us – and all it takes to see them is a powerful telescope. My telescope took first place honors in optics at Stellafane in 2001. (More details on www.dvaa.org)

But back to my evolution as a writer. While browsing a local newspaper last year, I found an invitation to join the Women’s Writing Circle, meeting only a few miles from my home. I attended  the next session, and many thereafter. With positive input from attendees, supplemented by the guidance of founder Susan G. Weidener, I grew as a writer.

The Women's Writing Circle has encouraged many women – myself included, enabling us to craft into words the dynamic and life-changing episodes of our lives. The best of their creations are worthy of publication.

However, I must confess that the story I submitted to A Life Unexpected, entitled "A Mother Is Forever," did not originate in my diary. It was a tale told to me by my mother. I believe the main events are true, but I don’t know for sure. My goal was to bring the characters to life – to instill them with motive and put them in situations where they would be compelled to act. I can assure the reader that the events and characters are based on a legitimate family history and an actual environment. Once a writer identifies a powerful idea, she can re-arrange and re-create the actions and characters in convincing ways.

Every writer has the challenge of creating characters and exploring situations that touch the deepest regions of their souls. For me and my creations – the goal at the heart’s core is to find meaning in life. The beauty, horror, and diversity of our Universe has exceeded everything I had ever imagined.

Marilyn E. Lange was born in Ohio and educated in Detroit public schools. She grew up in a religious home – her father a Lutheran minister and her mother a descendant of Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss reformer contemporaneous with Martin Luther. With an M.A. in American Literature from The Ohio State University, Marilyn moved to Philadelphia in search of a career, starting at the GE Missile and Space Division, and then establishing a teaching career in the Lower Merion School District as a high school English teacher, now retired. Her interests focus on astronomy, birding, and writing. In 2000 she established a “Bluebird Trail” on a local farm, and then became a board member of the Bluebird Society of PA in 2014. She is married to Cas Michalski and has a stepson. Writing has been a constant drive. She believes that writing is a way to explore meaning – to examine the human spirit and its complex manifestations. For her the Women’s Writing Circle has opened new perspectives.

The Life Unexpected: An Anthology of Stories and Poems, created by sixteen writers from the Philadelphia area, offers diverse perspectives and experiences of women’s lives as told through fiction, memoir and poetry. In this compact collection, life’s surprises and revelations along the journey of ‘the life unexpected’ are revealed, offering a new way of looking at the world. Two Philadelphia-area writing groups, the Women’s Writing Circle and Just Write, collaborated on The Life Unexpected (Lucky Stars Publishing). The book features 10 stunning photographs taken by the writers themselves. Available on Amazon on Nov. 25, proceeds benefit the Women’s National Book Association, a nonprofit promoting reading and women writers in community.

Monday, October 31, 2016

A Child of Divorce Writes About "The Absent Father"


Everyone has a story to tell about those unforeseen twists and turns that render lessons, realizations and redemption.

That theme formed the centerpiece of our upcoming anthology The Life Unexpected: An Anthology of Stories and Poems. Due out at the end of November, the book is a collaboration between the Women's Writing Circle and Just Write, another Philadelphia-area based writing group. It features women with diverse backgrounds and life experiences writing memoir, fiction and poetry.


In this guest post, Terri Kiral kicks off our author series explaining what inspired our stories. Terri shares how writing her short story, "The Absent Father," for our anthology offered a path to self-discovery and healing. Please welcome Terri to the Women's Writing Circle ~ Susan

*****

My parents separated in 1963. I was two years old. In the early sixties divorce, especially for a Catholic woman, was almost considered a stain, like walking around with a scarlet letter “D” on your shirt. You just didn’t talk about it. Even the church scorned her. No Holy Communion for my mom.

For half of my life, I held many feelings inside, mainly because feelings, at least the uncomfortable ones, like the divorce itself, weren’t discussed in our home. It wasn’t acceptable to be sad. Mom said, “There are others a lot worse off than you are.” Even as a kid, I understood that. It made complete sense to me. Until I grew up.

Others being “worse off” still makes obvious sense, but not validating my feelings . . . that doesn’t. Suppressed emotion doesn’t stay forever hidden. It creeps up in all sorts of places. I spent my fair share of time with therapists working hard to uncover a plethora of deeply embedded emotions. It’s a slow process. A little over a year ago, choking back my tears, a common occurrence during therapy, I struggled to find adequate words to explain my sadness. My therapist patiently waited and listened, then she gently suggested, “You feel gypped.”

Three simple words.

“Yes!” I exhaled, not realizing I was holding my breath, and my shoulders slumped forward. I felt a moment of relief as a 54-year-old splinter was plucked from a wound. I never got to know my dad. My life was a series of related chain-events after that.

I! Felt! Gypped!

I can’t speak for all children of divorce, but I know for me, the effects of being without a dad laid deep, muddy grooves that I have repeatedly scrambled and slipped out of again and again. They affected my physical health, tainted romantic and social relationships, manifested in unwise choices, and tampered with my self-esteem and sense of belonging.

Children read all sorts of uncomfortable, downright painful, scenarios into their position within the divorce. Some parents, lost in their personal struggles, unconsciously inject false suggestions that work like a poison to an already infected heart. In addition to my personal experience, I have seen first-hand, other children emotionally scarred by the false, bitter words of a scorned parent. It is sad.

I am far from naïve about the saying “it takes two to tango.” I have held both positions, that of scorner and scorned. I harbor no anger toward any one person for my loss. I have always understood that some things are not intentional. And I’ve always known my story was one of them, but that never lessened the sorrow.

I spent a lifetime choking back my feelings in believing that revealing them would somehow make me appear less than, or worse, pitiful. My healing process is hard work and takes guts. I take great strides in trying to be more open. Writing "The Absent Father" placed me in a position of vulnerability, but it’s a tremendous cathartic help on my path.

I hope my story will help newly-divorced parents recognize how important it is for their children to have both parents active and present in their lives.

If two adults, all those years ago, could have put their differences, bitterness and pain on the back burner, I’m guessing I might have had a dad. Of course, I’ll never know how any of that would have played out. My childlike imagination wonders why everyone can’t just be honest. Why is there a need to be right, to blame, point a finger, and smell like the proverbial rose?

Is it possible to meet somewhere in the middle, in that healing field Rumi longingly speaks of? Holding on to that possibility prompted me to finally write this story, one of many more to come.

How about you? Can you share how writing a story helped overcome loss?

Terri Kiral enjoys sharing moments of her life through her writing and hopes her stories will create opportunities for others to examine and embrace their own. She is a certified yoga teacher (RYT200), a dedicated meditator, avid reader, and eternal student of life. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, Andy and cat, Pyewacket. Connect with Terri on Facebook or follow her blog at www.whimsywithinblog.wordpress.com.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Siren Song of Traditional Publishing

At a women's fiction writing conference this past weekend I sat on a panel of authors and agents talking about self-publishing versus traditional publishing. As an “indie” author (self-published is passé) I had over these last six years mostly given up trying to convince people that not all of us fail to hire editors or have a slew of bad reviews on Amazon. And that, yes, we can and do sell books and spin off satisfying side endeavors, including teaching and editing.

That said, traditional publishing is the siren song luring many with its enchanting call.

The women I spoke to at the conference wanted a publisher, although few seemed to know (or care) what that means in terms of marketing and bookstores or whether a small or large press mattered. Self-publishing was considered the final option. They just didn't want to deal with the work.

But it isn't just about the time and energy. It's about the validation that they're worthy which they believe traditional publishing bestows. For someone who spent over two decades in journalism where validation was often based on factors other than great writing, I encourage new writers to try the traditionally published route. If it doesn't happen, however, it's not a testament to their talents or their work. It's about the market. But at least they can say they tried.

The two agents on the panel stated that when it comes to shopping manuscripts around to publishing houses, at least for women’s fiction, the protagonist can’t be older than in her late 20s or mid-30s. One author in the audience piped up that she had made her protagonist younger (changed her from being in her 40s to her mid-30s) at her agent's direction.

For me, it was a reminder that agents and traditional publishers are interested in everyone except maybe older people and their stories; unless, of course, you’re an established literary icon like Francine Prose who got this glowing review in the New York Times for her latest novel, Mister Monkey, which is about people of all ages.

Agents, after all, are just trying to make a living and hope to discover the next The Girl on the Train or Gone Girl. As the oldest person sitting on the panel I realized how vulnerable we all are to what “sells” – and what supposedly doesn’t. There seemed little emphasis on the literary, although a nod was given to making sure you write “a good story” with “universal themes.”

(In A Portrait of Love and Honor, Ava is in her mid-40s. In a short story I wrote due out in November, the protagonist is nearing her 60th birthday.)


The conversation about publishing continued later in a workshop at this conference. The view among the writers was that hybrid or partnership publishing was, as one woman put it, “vanity publishing.” Paying to have your manuscript vetted and accepted by hybrid publishers didn’t appear to entice, although, the consolation, if any, is earning higher royalties, the woman said.

Interestingly, of all the published authors present at least half were self-published. As one woman about my age told me, “I’m at the age where I can’t wait years to see my book published.” But even she had come to pitch her new novel to an agent; maybe because it felt like the reason most people paid for the day-long writing conference was to pitch to agents and hold out the hope that they might find a traditional publisher. 

After one would-be author returned from her pitch session, her deflation was obvious. We had spoken about her novel before she went in to pitch it and her enthusiasm was evident. She had spent years lovingly crafting a story about a mentally ill mother and her four daughters. By the end of her 15-minute pitch she came out of the room with shoulders slumped. The agent had deemed her novel “too emotional” without the necessary “hook” to “grab the reader right away.” (Plot-driven stories in women’s fiction are also what agents want.)

At the conclusion of a workshop I taught at the conference, the subject of publishing again came up. “I feel so overwhelmed,” a writer, who was probably in her early 40s, told me. “I have a friend who is self-publishing and when I hear her talk about all the work involved . . . " she sighed. "Yet when I walk into a library and see all these books and the people who have actually gotten their work published, I think . . . and then there’s me.”

I invited her to consider that writing is one of the hardest things in the world. Writing a bestselling novel is about as likely – or less – than being struck by lightning. What's important is getting the story out there for readers.

She nodded. “I have this story I need to write. It keeps me awake at night. If you’re writing to become rich and famous, that’s not a good reason.”

How about you? What experiences can you share on the path to publishing?