Monday, April 29, 2013

From "Worst" Job to New Beginning

The headline on a Philadelphia Inquirer alumni site on LinkedIn jumped out at me.  "Newspaper reporters have the worst job." 
Beneath -  a link to a Wall Street Journal story that actuaries have the best job in America and reporters the worst with a median income of  $36,000.  Couple that with the stress and long hours and for the first time  reporter topped lumberjack as the worst way to earn a living.
It seemed impossible how far the profession had fallen since my youthful dreamy-eyed days of becoming the female version of Woodward and Bernstein.    Than again, I have experienced the pain of endless lay-offs and buy-outs with friends and former colleagues.

The quote by a reporter at the end of the WS Journal story struck me: "I’m not sure I’d be happy in another setting. I can’t think of any job that would be as exciting or as fulfilling as this. People in the community are affected by what I write."

Which brings me to Morning at Wellington Square. What to do when you lose your career? How to move on? Not only had I lost a career, but the man I loved.  I was alone.  I was an empty nester with nothing left to lose but to venture out and take a  risk . . . which is where the memoir picks up.  I found "pearls" along the way, which was discovering that writing stories from the heart was a talent I never knew I had; better yet I could share that with  others and collaborate with them on writing more stories and together we could make a difference.

For the next three days, I'm offering Morning (it's no coincidence that the word is in bright yellow letters on the cover . . . it represents sunshine, light, a new beginning) for free on Kindle. What better time than Spring to offer up my story of renewal?

As memoir writer Mary Gottschalk wrote in her review of my book.  "Throughout her first book, Again in a Heartbeat, the reader senses a nub of strength at the core of this idiosyncratic woman who is raging against the fates. But in Morning at Wellington Square, she stops raging and begins to build a solid foundation for herself as a writer. There is a wonderful, sub rosa metaphor in the fact that Weidener finds her identity in mentoring and supporting other writers ... and at the same time, writes a book that tells a compelling story in a most lovely, lyrical way."
From the newsroom to a little bookstore called Wellington Square, I went from the "worst job" to a new beginning.

Do you have a story to share about finding a new beginning?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Slants of Light - A Collaboration

"None of us is as smart as all of us."  Japanese proverb

Harriet, Susan and Edda
A year to the date we first started discussing collaborating on a book, Slants of Light, the Women’s Writing Circle anthology, debuted.   It was like planting a seed and you weren't sure if it would grow or how strong. None of us could have done this without the other.  
We formed a core committee to make joint decisions about organization, strategy, and implementation.  None of us had done anything like this before and truthfully, I don’t think any of us had a clue how much work it would turn out to be, which is probably for the best. 
Harriet, Edda and Sharon
Our committee consisted of four people, Edda R. Pitassi, Sharon Keys Gray, Harriet Singer and myself.  Those three dedicated themselves tirelessly to this project.  I am forever in their debt.

We spent many afternoons seated around my kitchen table planning, organizing and developing this book, drinking coffee and cranberry juice, munching on fruit, cheese and crackers  . . . laughing, sharing, just getting to know each other.  We came from diverse backgrounds; memoir, poetry, journalism, some of us working, some retired, all dedicated to one creative goal. We knew we were creating something bigger than ourselves and on us rested the hopes of 11 other women  to produce as beautiful and readable a book as possible.  
We spent hours poring over anthology collections, studying how others had done it, what fonts and designs they used to make their book stand out; cover and title.  You really have to do your homework if you’re going to self-publish a book.  This is my third self-published book in three years and publishing an anthology was a far different experience than going solo. I'm still learning as I go along and publishing is changing at lightning speed.   It leaves you breathless. When you're collaborating on a book, you have to listen to everyone, consider all the input, make compromises.  I learned I was pretty good at organizing and motivating other people to keep this project on track and meet the deadlines in the contract we crafted. A learning experience, for sure.
A contract: It's essential!  This way there is no guessing game, no last minute, “But you didn’t tell me that!” from anyone.  So what goes into a contract?   Details, details and more details.  Stuff that takes away from your creative time, which is working on your writing.  But it’s got to be done. And everyone has to sign it.
Fee:  Each woman paid $100 for her submission/submissions.We created a separate bank account to deposit the funds to pay for the editor, the cover illustrator, the printer (CreateSpace). Everyone got to own the copyright to their particular story.
Submission:  Limit two per writer. Contributions could not exceed 5,000 words.  Looking back, I would limit to 4,000 words.
Craft a purpose of intent:  The anthology is intended to reflect our best creative efforts to share, connect, motivate, reward and reach out.  We hope our contributions will add to the widest possible range of experiences and perspectives from our lives and memories.  We approach this project in the spirit of goodwill, and we view the project as a collaborative effort.  We understand that our book - the final product - will be richer and greater than our individual stories.
Editing:  Everyone agreed to editing by their peers through critique sessions and the core committee and this was spelled out in the contract.  Still, editing ruffled feathers to the extent that three writers dropped out.  We kept the project open to anyone who wanted to submit, but they had to agree to editing. The committee had the  job of hiring an outside editor who would have the final word on content editing and sequencing of stories and poems in the book. If the contributors didn’t accept editing, they were out.  No ifs, ands or buts.  
Melinda Sherman
I want to thank my friend and fellow writer, Melinda Sherman who I met at an IWWG Conference at Yale in 2011 and who agreed to be our editor.  She was awesome and we couldn’t have done it without her. She retitled many of the stories and poems  to make them more compelling to readers. 
Melinda had worked as an editor for years for McMillian and for Scholastic.  A pro. She was objective and had the final word which took the burden off me.  As creator of the Women’s Writing Circle, I have a dual role, which is writing coach and teacher.  I did not want to muddy the waters with being the one to say, “Hey, this isn’t going to work!”  I figured, let Melinda handle that, including editing the two stories I contributed to the anthology. 

As a former journalist, it always surprises me how resistant some are to editing, even the smallest tweak of their work.  If I had said ‘no’ to my work being edited, I wouldn’t have lasted a day in the newsroom.  Not to mention, I wouldn't have had as good or as polished a piece, which is what all writers should strive.  You have to put your egos on the backburner to the extent that you realize you're working on a collaboration here and one story and one poem flows into another and if one doesn't work, then the reader is going to stop right there and put down the book.  Fortunately, the women who stayed with the book over the summer and fall of 2012 worked hard to incorporate the editing and make the deadlines we had set for final submission. In the end, I think all were grateful for the time and attention we took on each and every story.  And as it turned out, we had a wealth of talent. All we needed was a little molding.
Title: Do your research and pick a title not already used. The committee’s selection of Slants of Light was based on a couple factors. No other book had the title (and adding the subtitle helped)  and we love the Emily Dickinson quote that spoke to that theme and the theme of our book.   Titles we rejected:  Lighting the Candle (connoted a religious message); Pastiche (not everyone familiar with the word). 

Jane Choc
Hiring an illustrator:  The committee felt hiring someone from the local area made sense and was consistent with a collaboration of women from the Philadelphia area.  Jane Choc came to the Circle one day.  She was an illustrator, but I think she was interested in writing children's stories.  We wanted a unique cover that reflected an image of the Circle with slants of light coming in through the window behind the women.  She said she could work from photographs I had taken at readings at the bookstore and create a cover from those.  Jane also created five lovely pen and ink drawings that spoke to the themes in the anthology: childhood, motherhood, aging, career  and relationships.  They're a terrific addition to the book and help break up all the text.
Marketing and publicity.  This is important so no one person gets stuck with all the work.  Creative people don't like the practical aspects of selling a book, but, unfortunately, it's necessary or your work ends up in obscurity and then it's all for naught.  In the contract each woman agreed to actively participate in the marketing and promotion of the book. This included but was not  limited to social networking, book signings, readings, and “meet and greet” the authors at local events.  I'll keep you posted on how that's going!
A lot more went into the anthology; the angst and the frustration that comes with the whole ball of wax - writing and producing a book, no literary agents, no traditional publishers, just your own belief on a wing and a prayer that you've got something to say and you want to share it with an audience before you turn too old to speak anymore!  If you have to work hard at something . . . really hard. . .  then why not at something you're passionate about?  Something that at the end of the day all of us can call our own.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Freeing the Writer―and the Woman

If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people. ~ Virginia Woolf

With publication today of Slants of Light, our About the Authors series concludes with Susan G. Weidener.

When I write, I get a chance not only to free the writer within, but free the woman. I explore my fear of aging and death, the loves and the losses of  my life, the anger and the pain. In the process I am letting go and feeling the weight lift. By taking risks with my writing, I can transform and grow as an adult.

As a journalist I met people from all walks of life and backgrounds.  Everyone has a story to tell. It wasn't long after I left the newspapersix years ago nowthat I realized I had stories I wanted to mine from everyday events, ordinary people and my own day-to-day observations and relationships with others.  The settings of my stories are the living room of a house, a restaurant, a moonlit night in suburbia.
My stories in Slants of Light are about two women at very different stages in their lives.   In the first story, "Last Shot at the Brass Ring," the narrator is a widow pondering aging, and the odds of finding romantic love again.  She turns to a popular Internet dating site. What do you call a would-be lover at her age, she wonders as she meets her blind date, Sam,  for brunch?  Certainly not a boyfriend!  Emma feels she has earned “shareholder status in Estee Lauder,” she has purchased so many facial and anti-wrinkling creams over the years in her attempt to remain youthful-looking and attractive. 
She refuses to cash in her chips just because society tells her that older women are disposable.  So she gives it one last shot - a search for romance and connection ... which begins to look slightly absurd even to her, a diehard romantic, as Sam licks his fingers of their bay seasoning and then launches into stories about his life that become stranger and stranger. You can't make stuff like this up; the story is based in a real encounter ... fact is stranger than fiction ... and the humor in it led to the story practically writing itself.
My second story is "Stepping Stone House." Women spend a lot of time in their homes and it seemed the perfect setting to tell the tale of marriage and family.  The young married couple, Claire and Mark, make love in the bedroom with flowered wallpaper and white curtains; the children decorate their rooms with dinosaur and "Abbey Road" posters. The wedding picture framed in gold on the piano becomes a bittersweet reminder of all that could have been but never will be.
The house is the centerpiece to Claire's story of widowhood and a single, working mother with two small children. As she stands on her deck at night, she thinks back to when she and her husband bought their modest dwelling; believing it a good investment, their hopes high that someday they would move on and "step up" to a bigger and better house ... naively believing they have all the time in the world to make a life together.  She confronts her shattered dreams, straightens her shoulders and starts all over again, if for no other reason than because she owes it to her children.
I try to broaden the portraits of the women I write about so that they become more than me and my own life, but snapshots that capture "everywoman." These are women searching for love and connection, renewal, if you will, amid a dawning realization that fulfillment comes not from a man or a marriage, but from finding strength within yourself and tapping into your inner spirit and creative passions. 
Through tone and narrative, I hope these women breathe on the page, their voices strong and sure, their insecurities acknowledged, their fragility and their strength exposed without apology. 
The Women's Writing Circle has taught me  how much in common we have as women and how crucial it is to support and validate each other and our voices. 

As our stories capture so well in Slants of Light,  we are not alone on this journey of the feminine.
About Susan:  Susan G. Weidener received her BA in Literature from American University and her MS in Education from the University of Pennsylvania. She joined the staff of The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1991 and worked as a reporter in the Inquirer's suburban bureau until 2007. Her critically acclaimed debut book, Again in a Heartbeat, led to writing a sequel, Morning at Wellington Square, published in 2012. Susan started the Women's Writing Circle, a critique and support group for writers in suburban Philadelphia. She is available for talks and lectures on memoir writing and how to find the compelling narrative in your story. Susan lives in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania.

To order Slants of Light on CreateSpace:
To order on Amazon:

Friday, April 12, 2013

"Honest and Gritty" Memoir

"Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation." ~ Graham Greene.
Jan L. Backes talks about what inspired her memoir piece, "Heavenly Baseball Diamond" for Slants of Light.
I met Kathy Pooler here on the Women’s Writing Circle blog and have written her quotes in my notebook. On the blog she wrote: “Writing through the pain has helped release the burdens of my heart.”
In the beginning of "Heavenly Baseball Diamond," I was making an attempt to reconcile the pain of my self-loathing that led to a near fatal overdose of anti-depressants. As I grew into the story I realized that writing about my experience could help others and perhaps prevent a single suicide or save someone from having the experience I had at age twenty.
When I write memoir, it is honest and gritty. I am trying to process the sludge lining my aching soul. I am letting go of splinters. Having experienced everything firsthand and having it all be true is, by far, best for the reader. There is no ‘between the lines’ and I’m all there, unwrapped.
I knew, even when I was young, that I didn’t want to carry with me such heartache and pain. I have regrets; some say they have none. It was important for me to get my feelings out and across. The events in my story were real. I took fifty pills with a can of beer.
I recall the look and feel of the baseball diamond itself; barren, dusty and worn down with no real bases to speak of. I was never able to hit a ball there. It may still sit on the campus in Eagleville, PA where I was rehabilitated in the early 1980’s.
Writing about my darkest days helped awaken my bruised spirit. I nourished myself by letting out my words. As I started to write, memories of my attempted suicide bombarded me. Instead of hiding, I gave myself permission to write from a deep place in my soul. I began to realize that my voice is strong and could help others.
Being part of the Women's Writing Circle provides me with a safe place to create and share my life stories. That is where we find our 'slants of light' . . . light that inspires us to reach in and then to reach out.
Jan Backes grew up in Levittown, PA and graduated from Pennsbury High School in Fairless Hills. "I’ve dabbled in attempts at writing poetry. 'Heavenly Baseball Diamond,' as it appears in the anthology, is one of my only edited stories," she says.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Telling Stories For Our Daughters

Our About the Authors series continues with Jodi Monster.  She talks about why she wrote her short story, "Josie: The Answer to a Prayer You Don't Know How to Pray" for the Women's Writing Circle anthology, Slants of Light.
I have a daughter. She is among my greatest joys--smart, sunny and full of life. She is also seventeen and eager to know what this great, wide world is all about, and what her place in it will be.
And so I cringe when I find her, yet again, watching reality TV--all those housewives with their mean-spirited gossip and bitter self-absorption, all those dance moms nursing their vicious, winner-take-all fights. Please, God, I implore, do not let her think that this is what we grown women are, or wish to be. Please, God, give her to know that there are kind, empathetic and creative women abroad, women who think carefully and at length about the events of their lives, who search for meaning and purpose and whose fondest hope is that they might leave this world just a little better than they found it.
But is it okay to leave it there, my most fervent wish for her offered up as a prayer? I've dilly-dallied, postponed and procrastinated for years, but the fact is there's only one answer I can, in good conscience, give, and that is no. Emphatically no! The housewives and dance moms are "out there;" their stories are getting told. And if I want my daughter to know that women's lives can be better than those she sees on TV--more purposeful and productive and full of grace--then it's up to me to tell her.

This, then, is the long way of saying that I contributed to the Women's Writing Circle Slants of Light anthology because I believe that storytelling matters.
When we tell our stories, we offer up the past in an effort to reshape the future. We write so that we may share, and we share so that we may teach--ourselves and those who follow along behind us.
Storytelling--telling our own stories--is hard. It takes a lot of guts to come clean. But coming clean is ultimately an act of generosity, and in some small way, revolt.
Here's to all the beautiful women who told their stories for this book. It's been an honor!
Jodi Monster is a writer living in Berwyn, PA. She is the author of a memoir and several short stories and essays. Prior to settling in suburban Philadelphia, she and her family lived in The Netherlands, Texas and Singapore. She is a graduate of Dartmouth College and the University of Chicago.  Many of Jodi's stories, including the one in this anthology, take place in an anonymous, seaside town in southern New England because the landscape there, with all its drama and beauty, is the most worthy backdrop she can imagine for the inherent drama and beauty of women's lives. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

The "Surprise" That Is Writing

Our About the Authors series continues with Maureen Barry.
Over the years, my writing has focused on various genres: plays, short stories, novels, poetry, journaling and memoir. I can’t remember a time when I haven’t been writing in a journal. The journey has always been a connection to self-validation as the written words make sense out of what I call my life.
Writing is often a surprise. As I react to a prompt, my mind spins and words pour onto the page. Did I just write that? Should I tell the whole story? Did it really happen to me? How could I have been so stupid? Then I realize from reading the words that this is what happened and I need to revisit the place or the time to capture the whole experience.
The Women’s Writing Circle has been an opportunity to tell my story. In sharing my story, "Cheers and Beers! To Grandpop Joe," for our anthology, Slants of Light, my relationship with my grandpop surfaced. The more I wrote, the more I realized his influence on me remains today. The time I spent with him validated my importance as a woman. I find myself repeating his behaviors in my interactions with my own grandsons.
It’s the surprise in my writing that holds the most shock and it is what guides me to a deeper understanding of the experience. It makes me want to know more.
Writing gives me freedom to clarify significant experiences. It explores my childhood, my education, my friendships, my loves, marriages and my children. By sharing my experiences, I connect to others and so it becomes a human connection. We are all vulnerable and trying to figure out the same things but in different ways.

In another sense, writing is like swimming through a pool of ideas. They glide up against me and I take one stroke at a time.  Gliding through the water, I reach and I pull.

Grandpop Joe
My childhood is a collage of people I love. I gaze at each photo and want to know more about the person staring back at me. I retrieve my memories and start writing whatever I can remember. I explore my memory through my senses as I add the details to the scene.
I sometimes hear his voice, “Great job, Maureen.” As I read the memoir to the Circle, grandpop, sitting at the kitchen table at 63rd and Greenway Avenue in Philadelphia, came to life with vivid details. I saw myself pouring a glass of beer under his watchful eye. It was more than a Kodak image; it was a movie in slow motion. My memoir reminds me of the gentle hero of my childhood who gave freely of himself. The story gained strength and momentum from the Circle’s responses and editing. The memoir piece captures one of my fondest memories of my childhood.
Maureen Barry is a storyteller and the author of six children’s books. Her stories can be found on her website “I love to create original stories, then bring them to life in a performance.  Children are magical as their imaginations run with my stories.  My memoir is presently a work-in-progress and  I plan to publish it. Everyone has a story to tell. Our stories connect us to each other and help us understand how life acts upon us. It is the connection between people that keeps me intrigued.” Maureen was a teacher for over thirty-three years at the high school and college levels, and was involved with theater productions in the classroom and on the stage. Maureen facilitates workshops in the art of storytelling, writing children’s books and memoir. She sails, travels and lives in Malvern, PA.