The topic of the Writing Workshop has always intrigued me in a deep way, so much so that for my graduating lecture at Vermont College of Fine Arts I prepared and solicited an in-depth survey to my MFA colleagues, which I then compiled the results into a lecture titled “Engaged, Thoughtful, Creative, and Weird: An Examination of the Writing Workshop.”
Here, my friend and MFA colleague, Jenna McGuiggan, who graduated a semester ahead of me and thus wasn’t in attendance for my lecture, shares her brilliant workshop guide covering some of the same topics I addressed in my lecture. Jenna’s guide is geared towards the creative nonfiction workshop, and I highly recommend her sage advice on the topic of staying grounded in critiquing the craft of the writing and not veering off into unhelpful territory.
It’s easy to read a memoir or essay and feel as though we know the author, even though all we really know is what the writer shared with us on the page. This false sense of familiarity is one thing when we read published work by authors we may never meet. But in a creative nonfiction workshop, this faux intimacy becomes a slippery slope.
We all know that writing workshop can be an emotionally charged environment to begin with. Add in stories of personal trauma, and you’ve got a veritable Slip‘N Slide of intense moments and awkward interactions just waiting for you to lose your footing.
How can you keep your balance and avoid any more uncomfortable moments than necessary?
Make this your mantra:
Writing workshop is not group therapy.
(Say it with me.)
(And if it helps, you can sing it to the…
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My friend and writing colleague, Jenna McGuiggan of The Word Cellar, recently interviewed me about my essay “The Polarity of Incongruities” for r.kv.r.y quarterly, the online journal that published the essay last month in their “Caregivers” issue. The interview is now live on the r.kv.r.y blog!
Here is the intro to the interview:
“Laurie Easter’s essay “The Polarity of Incongruities” appears in the Winter 2015 CAREGIVERS issue of r.kv.r.y.. Writer Jennifer McGuiggan comments, “I love essays for the way they unearth, explore, and extrapolate meaning from both polarities and incongruities. Laurie’s essay grapples beautifully with the spectrum of joys and pains that punctuate our lives.” Jennifer interviewed Laurie via email.”
Click here, to read the full interview.
Everybody loves a happy ending. Especially when there’s been some hardship or challenge occurring prior. For isn’t that often the recipe for a good story? Overcoming the odds to achieve success? Well, I am happy to report my own little success story.
I wrote an essay titled “Her Body, a Wilderness” that was published this last week in Prime Number Magazine’s Issue 61. That fact, in and of itself, is not anything remarkable. People write and publish stories, essays, and poems all the time, right? But there is this other little fact that is indeed kind of remarkable—at least to me, and from the reaction I have received from other numerous writers who suffer the beast called rejection, it seems if not remarkable then at least inspiring and hopeful. Here is the fact: My essay was rejected 51 times before finally being accepted for publication. And not only was the essay accepted after 51 rejections, it earned its publication status by being chosen as a prize winner.
Let me give you some background.
I first began this essay during my undergraduate years at Southern Oregon University. I was taking my first ever creative nonfiction class, of which the theme was nature writing, when my professor said something in class that stuck with me. He said that he considered his body a wilderness. That phrase (and its contemplative qualities) found its way into an essay a year or so later when I was working on my graduating capstone project, which was to build a portfolio of essays that I could draw from as writing samples when applying to MFA programs. That was five years ago. And as I write this, I realize that a version of this essay is the one I used in my successful application to Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I earned my MFA in 2012.
It is also the essay I submitted for my first ever workshop at my first residency in Vermont, and that semester I diligently wrote and revised the essay many times. My advisor said during our end of semester conference 1) of all my essays I had worked on during the semester, this one was the closest to being publishable but 2) I shouldn’t be thinking about publishing and just focus on the writing. So I set the essay aside and returned to it towards the end of the program.
After graduation and more revision, I began sending it out. I sent it to a total of 55 places. Not all at once, but in the end that’s the total number of times I submitted it. Of those 55 submissions, one journal never responded (not even after I sent a snail mail letter of inquiry with a second SASE for a response a year after I had originally sent my submission—I have since crossed them off my list of potential prospects), nine editors sent personalized rejections saying the piece came close to being chosen but in the end wasn’t, and 42 sent standard form rejections. Also, fourteen of my submissions had been to contests.
About a week after receiving my 51st rejection, I received an email from one of the last three journals I was waiting on. The editor said that while my piece had not advanced to the finalist stage in the contest, they were moved by the story and would like to publish it; would I be willing to put it through “a couple of rounds of submissions?”
Finally, someone wanted to publish my piece! Hell yeah, I was willing to revise it! I wrote the editor asking what she had in mind. She said she’d reread the essay and get back to me the following week. The essay was still out to two places—one a contest, one not—and I figured I wouldn’t notify the two remaining journals until I knew for sure that I could agree to the type of revisions the editor wanted me to make. Before I heard back from her, I received word that the essay had been chosen as a finalist for Prime Number Magazine’s inaugural creative nonfiction prize. I notified the previously interested editor of the situation and said that if she was willing, I would like to wait on doing the revision until I learned the outcome of the contest, to which she was very supportive and agreeable. I subsequently withdrew the piece from the final 55th place I was waiting to hear from.
After two and a half years of submitting and all those rejections, I found myself in the most fortunate situation of the essay being loved, appreciated, and potentially published by not one, but two different outlets. As it happened, the essay was awarded Third Prize by Ned Stuckey-French and ultimately published at Prime Number.
So how did I do it? How did I stick it out and not give up? Well, I almost did. Many times. As we all know, rejections suck, and they have the ability to wear down the soul and deteriorate motivation. At a certain point, though, I had racked up so many rejections that it almost seemed comical and with my lack of success came an overwhelming commitment to win the battle. In fact, around the time I received rejection #44, a very dear friend and accomplished writer said to me: “Maybe this piece isn’t going to get published [individually]. Maybe it’s just going to be a part of your collection.”
This friend didn’t mean harm. She wasn’t trying to diss my work. She was simply evaluating the situation and drawing what seemed like a plausible conclusion. The effect it had on me, however, was overwhelming. Now I was utterly determined I would get the essay accepted! My fire had been stoked. I continued to plug away at submissions.
So all this is to say…
Don’t give up.
Whatever it is you do, if it is your passion, keep at it. Commit yourself to the long haul. Persevere into Success.
There is so much I love about this, so many gems of insight.
Dancing Elephants by Heinrich Kley
What nobody tells you as an artist is that every project starts at the beginning. Not just the blank page, the empty stage, but that you have to re-establish your credentials and your quality every time. You can coast on reputation a little, but it doesn’t last long if you don’t deliver.
What nobody tells you is that praise—a standing ovation, a good review, your teacher’s approval—makes you feel good for a day, but one line of internet criticism from a stranger reverberates in your skull forever.
Frankly, I don’t see what all the fuss is about.
(I tried to feel bad when that critic killed himself the next year, but I didn’t.)
What nobody tells your boyfriend is that writing 3000 words in a calm, soothing, supportive environment still leaves you too tired to call home at the end of the day. So does…
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Ah, Paris! The City of Love. Visiting has long sat at the top of my bucket list. A notion both lonely and seemingly unattainable. I’m not quite sure why I have longingly dreamed of Paris. Is it the romantic allure of boat rides along the Seine? The venerable architecture? The exquisite food? The pleasing finesse of the French language? Finally experiencing it, I’d have to say “yes” to all that and more.
My “normal” life centers around a fairly basic existence in a rural environment on the fringes of wild, pristine nature. My water comes from a creek. I have a composting outhouse, no toilet. My bathtub/shower lives permanently outside. The sun furnishes our electricity. I have no cellular service at the house. Sometimes I can be home 7-10 days without leaving. And now for a three-week stint, I find myself (with my family) on a trip to four countries (Belgium, France, England, and Scotland), navigating train and metro lines, a foreign language I studied minimally thirty years ago, sights and sounds unlike any I would find near my humble little hovel in the woods.
From inside and outside the flat where we are staying on the top floor of a five-story building, I can see the Eiffel Tower, the iconic symbol of Paris, standing regally against the sky. As I write this from where I sit on my bed and glance out the wide open window, there she stands so close and beckoning that I can see clearly some of the detail of the wrought iron lattice work. From the moment I arrived and stepped out on the terrace, which wraps around the building of this corner apartment and boasts a 180-degree view that gazes above quintessential Parisian rooftops in the center of the city, it took all my restraint not to yell from the top of my lungs: “I’m in Paris! Oh my god, I’m in fucking Paris!”
The day before my recent birthday, on May 28, I opened up Facebook to find an abundance of photos of and quotes by Maya Angelou. At first I did not think this odd. For one thing, the very nature of Facebook is that people “share” posts, and often throughout a day or series of days, certain topics become popular as a general shifting focus. The other reason I did not suspect anything amiss was because Maya Angelou was such a strong and inspirational woman, poet, writer, and activist that it seemed only right she would be an influential force in people’s threads. Maybe I was being ignorant or naive, but I had no suspicion she had passed. That’s how normal it felt to see her face and quotations such as these:
It wasn’t until a post popped up that showed the dates of her birth and her death (that very day) that I was struck with a ferocity of weighted loss as I realized the reason for all the posts was not merely due to her awesomeness and inspiration but because she was gone from the planet. Immediately tears flowed in an uncontrollable stream as I opened Google news and read the first article I found.
Let me say that while I am a highly emotional person who is easily swayed by sentimentality in books, movies, commercials even, it is not my usual mode to cry over the death of celebrities. Not even writers. I can feel deep sadness and a sense of loss, but tears don’t usually flow. The only other celebrity I actually cried over was John Denver. That might sound a weird choice–as if we actually have the power to choose how we react to such news–but as a child of the ’70s, John Denver’s music had been an influential force that carried over as the soundtrack to the raising of my own small children. But I digress.
Maya Angelou was not a figure from my childhood. I did not read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings until adulthood. I do not share similarities of upbringing: culture, class, race, religion, or regional influences. So why was it that her death moved me to tears?
I think it was her woman-ness. I think it was her general awesomeness of spirit. I think it was her words, her poetry, her soul. I think it was her resilience. Her voice. The way she spoke. Her wisdom, her insight. The way she carried herself, regal and confident and unassuming. I think it was the way she danced. I think it was her passion, humor, and style. And certainly, it was her compassion.
Here she is reciting her famous poem “Still I Rise”:
And for those of you who may have missed it, here is the link to the livestream (no longer live, of course) of Dr. Maya Angelou’s memorial service that took place this last Saturday June 7 in Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University:
Thank you, Maya Angelou. Phenomenal woman, that’s you.
A few weeks ago I received an email from a literary journal concerning an essay I had submitted. The email said that the editors had read my piece and felt “very strongly about it” and that the editorial staff was “currently working on revisions to the piece” and would be in touch within the week with their suggested edits. If I approved their suggestions, the email went on to say, they would love to publish the essay in an upcoming issue.
Upon opening this email and finding a response other than the typical “thanks but no thanks” form letter, I was, of course, quite pleased. What a great way to start the day with my morning coffee! While it wasn’t an out and out yes, it was nonetheless a potential. Editors had read my piece and felt strongly about it, I thought. Yay!
Then the anxiety set in. What are they going to do to it? What if they butcher it? This essay was one of my prize creations: a thirty-page, triple-thread, braided essay begun in grad school and finished while in residency at the Vermont Studio Center. I had worked on this piece long and hard, and in submitting it to this journal, I had already cut five pages in order to fit their maximum length requirement.
Only a week earlier, I had received a response from an editor of a different journal concerning a separate essay submission. The editor said if I was “willing to do the work” to rewrite the piece accommodating her suggestions, she’d love to see it again. Essentially, this editor wanted an overhaul away from the style of its structure and also a change of title. I had already put this essay through the wringer with multiple drafts, but mostly I was disinclined to rework the piece because the very things the editor did not like about it were deliberate choices I had made in its construction. After seeking the opinions of several writer friends who had already given me feedback on the piece, I decided against a revision. While the result of obliging the editor’s wishes might have resulted in an acceptance, I felt strongly in the form and structure of the piece I had created and chose to stand by it.
So when I received that tentative “yes” a week later, I knew there was a very real possibility the suggested edits could be changes I would not be willing to make. The flip side was I really wanted this essay to be accepted by this journal, which made me contemplate what sacrifices I might make if I did not agree with the suggestions.
A little over a week later, I got the results. Tentatively, I opened the document to peruse the track changes. All was well for a good long while; the suggested changes were ones I could easily make—changing from present tense to past, adding a bit of structure in the form of numbered sections—but then on page seventeen, things began to shift, and by page nineteen, where it was suggested to move a section of the braided essay to an earlier position, I began to feel the weight of choice. And then on page twenty-one, where I discovered they had cut an entire section, I realized the very thing I was anxious about had manifested.
But wait! This is not a sob story about how yet again I wasn’t willing to make the changes, so I lost out on another potential publication. No. This is a story about perseverance, seeking guidance, and advocating for my work.
Once again I sought counsel. This time from two wise people: both writers who have worked with editors, and one an editor of a literary journal. Both advised me to approach the editors in an easy-going and friendly manner, exhibiting enthusiasm and appreciation for their time and energy in editing the piece and letting them know how helpful their edits were. Then in a gentle manner, succinctly explain my reasoning for wanting to keep in original form those edits I did not agree with. While waiting for their reply, I could decide whether or not I would ultimately accept the edits if the editors responded firmly. The editor of the literary journal ended by saying:
As an editor, I’m totally willing to hear the writer’s point of view and go back and forth. Don’t be afraid to have that conversation with them.
I must disclose here that my husband was very happy I had sought this advice because it tempered my natural fighter response, forced me to slow down my reaction, and encouraged me to play nicely with others. All in all, a very good lesson.
It took me all day to write that email. Although I tried to be succinct in explaining my reasoning, due to the nature of the suggested edits and the complication of the triple-threads of the braided essay, the explanation was not a simple matter of a sentence or two. But in the end, the result was worth it. Three days later I received an acceptance; the editors had agreed to my suggestions.
The big takeaway here:
- Slow down
- Take the time to respond with care
- Seek advice when needed
- Trust your writerly instincts
- Don’t be afraid to have the conversation
- And advocate for your work!
It’s not a guarantee of success, but it’s a possibility.
It’s not quite time for my regular weekly post (have I even gotten to the point of regular yet?), but I had to share a link to Robin Black’s “Twenty-One Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Started Writing …” up at Beyond the Margins.
If you’re a writer, no matter what stage of the writing and publishing game you might be at, there are so many things on this list that will make you nod in agreement or are just plain good reminders that maybe you haven’t consciously thought about but know on a more intuitive level. And, of course, some may surprise you altogether. (A big shout out to Erika Dreifus and her most excellent weekly post “Friday Finds for Writers” for this great recommendation. If you’re not familiar with Erika, check her out. She also publishes an informative free monthly newsletter “The Practicing Writer.”)
At every graduation at my alma mater, Vermont College of Fine Arts, there is a tradition where two graduates read a list called “Pearls of Wisdom,” wise (and often humorous) tid-bits collected by students from their written advisor feedback. Robin Black’s list reads like such a list of pearls. Even if you’re not a writer, there are pearls of wisdom here that cross-over into the realm of being human, not just being a writer. Here’s an example:
Don’t expect perfection of yourself. Do your best. Feel bad when you screw up, apologize if necessary, and don’t let it make you hate yourself. A lot of writers seem awfully prone to self-hatred. Try to cut yourself some slack.
I’d say that not only a lot of writers are prone to self-hatred, but a lot of People are too. And this:
The best you can do is the best you can do.
So there you have it: be good to yourself. And have a happy weekend!
My family teases me that the highlight of my day is collecting the mail. It’s true; it’s sort of an obsession of mine, this six-days-a-week trip to our rusty, rural mailbox with its red flag and peeling green paint. Part of the allure is the quarter-mile walk each way, down a gravel drive through meadowland that passes one neighbor’s pond and another neighbor’s orchard, a lush organic farm just beyond and a view of evergreen mountain ridges both near and far.
In winter, the snow can melt and refreeze repeatedly into two channels of slick ice, and the trek then requires thoughtful placement of stout boots with decent tread. In spring when it rains, water often rushes down the ditch beside the road, threatening to crest and wash away the gravel. In summer, the heat can be unforgiving, radiating in thick, dry, suffocating waves. And in fall, well fall is usually just about perfect with its promise of shifting hues in the light and plentiful harvest.
Usually when I open the box and scoop up its contents, I’m greeted by bills or junk mail. Occasionally I’ll find a literary journal or magazine. But mostly, the mail is rather dull, which begs the question why am I so mail obsessed?
I think it boils down to Possibility. Every time I open that front-loading door and reach inside, there is the possibility that among the bills and junk, I will be rewarded, like finding the prize from the Lucky Charms box in my cereal bowl as a kid. Those days when a journal or magazine arrives are such days. But even better are the days—very few and far between—when I am surprised by a handwritten card from a friend.
This last week included such a day when a postcard of an Alaskan landscape painting by Sydney Mortimer Laurence arrived from my friend, Elizabeth, who lives in Fairbanks. In her pleasant and fully legible print, she wrote of skiing around the woodsy trails near town, camaraderie and friendship, and how the approach of spring brings deep thinking and analysis. This is the kind of treasure I welcome on my daily strolls to the mailbox, this illuminated possibility that could be lying within ready to brighten the day.
There is something fulfilling and profound about becoming familiar with someone else’s handwriting, a human trait at once individual like our own fingerprints yet depicting character in the way the letters are formed: curvaceous or blocky, a thin scrawl or deliberate as a firm handshake. Handwritten words carry a super-charge that type in email doesn’t embody, nor never will. It’s close, personal, like a whispered conversation.
The way of the old-fashioned letter in the mail has practically disappeared. Kids nowadays aren’t taught in school how to address an envelope. In fact, they’re not even being taught how to write in cursive anymore. Do they even teach handwriting at all? This shift to the digital makes communication fast and efficient, yes, but what of the charm of special stamps and stationary, postcards and pen-pals? I can’t help but feel the younger generations are losing something they don’t even know they’ve lost in this movement toward a more transitory existence. I mean, who prints and keeps copies of emails as a keepsake?
The awesome folks over at The Rumpus are doing their part in keeping the fine art of letter writing alive with their “Letters in the Mail” subscription. Each month, subscribers receive two letters in the mail, written by authors such as Margaret Cho, Rick Moody, and Aimee Bender, to name a few. Some are typed; others are handwritten; all are photo-copied. They’ve even started a “Letters for Kids” subscription with letters written by well-known authors of middle-grade and young adult literature. Their credo: “We’re helping people appreciate the post office at a younger age.” As to their motivation, this is what they have to say:
Six is pretty much the perfect age to start checking your mailbox. And if you’ve waited until you were ten, well, you’re four years behind but still, it’s not too late. And if you’re sixteen, that’s OK, there’s still something of the kid left. And if you’re sixty, well… OK. You’re young at heart.
I think that’s where it comes from, this obsession of mine. It started when I was a child checking the mailbox—an endearment, a joy, a possibility.
There’s one thing about getting a handwritten card in the mail from a friend. It’s called reciprocation. So full disclosure: my friend, Elizabeth, has written me other cards before this one I received last week, and I have yet to do my part and offer her the same moment of fun when opening her mailbox. (So, Triple-A, if you are reading this, please know that I have something special planned for you, and my saying it here binds me to follow through.)
As for anyone else reading this, I have an offer. With this post, I am initiating The Triple-A Project—handwritten cards in the mail. Leave a comment below if you would like to be on the receiving end of the Triple-A Project and then move over to the “Contact” page of this website (links are at the top and bottom of this page) to message me your address (messages are private and don’t appear online). I promise not to share your address with anyone, send you weird shit, or stalk you. I do, however, promise to send you a beautiful postcard with a groovy handwritten message.
Here’s to keeping alive the fine art of handwritten letters in the mail.
Today when I collected my mail, the latest issue of a particular literary journal that will remain nameless had arrived. I gathered the assortment of mail, glancing at the cover of this journal, and said aloud with verve and finality: “I’m still mad at you,” albeit in a sulky tone. As if this journal could hear me. As if even if it could, the editors listed inside would care. As if I was a jilted lover holding a long-held grudge. My grudge, however, is not long-standing, only nineteen days to be exact.
Okay, before you start rolling your eyes and thinking “quit complaining and get over it,” let me explain.
First of all, I’m not holding a grudge. (Well, maybe an itty-bitty one. But I will indeed get over it.) It’s more hurt than grudge really. Yes, I know, to be a writer one has to be willing to be kicked more than a few times (like hundreds) and not take it personally, right? That’s the thing though. It is personal because the work is personal. And this essay I submitted that got rejected, well, it was way personal. Probably my most personal. And that’s saying something if you know me or my writing.
Now you might be thinking “serves you right god-damned navel-gazer.” And maybe to a certain degree that would be correct. I mean, if I dare to be confessional in my writing, exposing myself to the deepest core, well, then I’m taking a risk. I’m opening myself up to criticism and rejection, as well as praise and acceptance. That’s just the nature of the world. We don’t all have the same preferences. Thank goodness for that. And this journal that rejected me? They got more than eight hundred submissions. The odds were most definitely not in my favor.
I received this rejection while at AWP, and one of my friends there said “They get a lot of submissions. What were you expecting?” And in one sense, I suppose she is right. With that kind of competition, how could I have the audacity to feel like a jilted lover? Now, that is what I really want to discuss. But it takes some openness to what might be perceived as “airy fairy” notions or “new age-y” ideals. And if that’s an area that you find to be mamby-pamby-shit-talk, then you can just stop right here and hit that big ol’ X in the top right corner.
So that question my friend asked at AWP, what was I expecting? Here’s the truth. I was expecting my essay to be chosen. It fit all the criteria. It incorporated a strong narrative, research, and reflection. It reached beyond the personal into the universal. It was honest, intimate, and true. And to top it all off, it perfectly fit the advertised theme. But once again, there is that question of how could I dare to think, no, believe that my essay would be chosen amongst all those submissions?
Have you ever heard of the film or book—heck, I think it’s probably become a whole entire movement—The Secret by Rhonda Byrne? It’s based on a concept known as “the law of attraction,” a concept also made famous by the teachings of Abraham, an entity “channeled” by Esther Hicks. The short version is this: like attracts like; our thoughts have the power to create whatever we want. If we focus our energy on that thing we want, if we remain positive, not by mere positivity, but by pure belief of imagination, then like attracts like, and that thing will manifest based on that flow of energy. See, I warned you this could be considered some mamby-pamby shit.
Okay, so here is my dilemma. While I awaited the results of my submission, I maintained a positive attitude. But it was more than that. I visualized it. I felt it. I believed it. There was no doubt, not even an inkling. I think what I felt came the closest to what I imagine people who believe in God feel—not that I’m trying to equate my acceptance or rejection to an almighty that millions of people believe in, but more the notion of a belief so strong that you feel secure in that belief.
So here’s the problem. I don’t want to lose my capacity for positive thinking. That feeling I had when I visualized so strongly my positive outcome, it felt good. It felt great actually. But the reality turned out to be different. My essay wasn’t chosen. It didn’t even make the final round. And maybe using this experience as an example for a foray into faith and positive thinking is a silly one, but right now, in this moment, that’s what I’ve got. There are others who are dealing with much worse results than this. A dear friend of mine currently is battling cancer. She’s one of the bravest, most inspiring people I know. She’s had to face challenge after challenge, and with every step she summons strength and grace. It’s not always easy for her, but she does it. And this idea of the law of attraction, if I replace her scenario with my own, it becomes a ludicrous notion. She did not attract cancer due to a lack of positivity. In her own words just today, she wrote,
We want to believe that if we live right, we won’t get cancer. If we fight hard, we can beat cancer. If we stay positive then we live longer. I can tell you right now that’s not always the case. Being healthy, fighting hard, and staying positive are admirable and desirable traits, but they can’t guarantee life.
I’m not facing cancer. Well, I am if you count watching my friend’s trajectory, but it is not my personal daily experience. I have it easy.
This is the conundrum I find myself: Between a belief in the power of positive thinking and reality. I don’t want to lose faith. But I also don’t want to lose sight of what’s tangible, or even probable. Not being chosen out of more than eight hundred submissions—that’s probable. But still, I want to believe.