Search Results for: memoir

‘When creative is your job title, you have to keep earning it’ – author, poet, sculptor and memoirist Guinotte Wise @noirbut

Guinotte Wise is currently two people. Guinotte the sculptor, making found objects into quirky metal creations. There’s also Guinotte the writer, who has published poetry, novels, short stories – and most recently a memoir in essays, Chickens One Day, Feathers The Next. That’s about all the other people he’s been, of which there are quite a few.

Guinotte Wise with Geiger counter guitar made by another rogue creative, his friend Chris Simmons

But let’s start with writing and sculpting. Creativity seems to have been welded into his DNA. He says:

My great-uncle Jack Gage Stark was a pretty well-known California impressionist painter back in the 1930s to 50s, and I met a relative at the one family reunion I attended, Maude Guinotte, who was a sculptor and a wonderful character. She worked in clay and bronze. One of many stories about her; she bought a new Chrysler convertible to drive to the coast, hated it, traded it for another after a couple hundred miles, disliked that one, traded it, so the (perhaps apocryphal) story goes, it took maybe five Chryslers to get the trip done.

And my mom wrote Dorothy Parkeresque poetry from time to time—really good sardonic stuff.

You’ve also been a bullrider, ironworker, labourer, welder, funeral home pickup person, busboy, warehouse worker, bartender, truckdriver, postal worker, ice house worker, horse groom, paving field engineer. How did those happen?

I started working and squirrelling away money at 12 or so—I thought we were bankrupt and that meant people coming and taking the furniture and carpets. I kept money in a desk drawer against this catastrophic time, after I spent some for necessities like a Red Ryder BB gun ($3.79 at a local hardware store). I worked hard at a lot of jobs from then on. I should be a millionaire by now, but that pinnacle escaped me.

A bullrider, though! How did you get work as a bullrider?

I went to bullriding school in Texas, and, before that, I’d hung around jackpot rodeos in little towns, watching then competing. You go to the arena office, show your affiliation card, pay a fee, draw your bull. Then you’re on your own, you and that bull.

It was not lucrative. I remember a very good bullrider, when asked by a local radio station how much he made in a year, said $15,000 (this was back in the 50s), then they asked what his yearly expenses were: he said $20,000. When asked why he did it, he said, “Too lazy to work, too nervous to steal.”

And a funeral home pickup person?

That came up when I was in art school. I worked nights, from 6pm to 6am. I had to wear a suit and get a decent haircut. If nobody died, I would sleep or study, talk to the night people. From 6 to 10 I’d usher people into state rooms, to see friends or family at rest. People die at night a lot; a night man named Verne and I would pick them up in a hearse.

I have to tell you this one; Verne and I went to pick up a deceased person, and it was 3am. Verne would always lay on the gurney and sleep while I drove to the house or hospital. At a stoplight a carful of partying girls drove up next to us and started laughing and hollering at me; they could see Verne in a suit laying with his hands on his chest—then he sat up to see what all the noise was and they burned rubber for a block getting out of there. The stories I have about that job.

Assuming these jobs were a process of self-discovery, what did you discover?

I discovered one night while having a cigarette and watching the smoke from the crematorium next to the mortuary that I was increasingly bummed by this job, although I liked the people and the pay was decent, but I just had to find something else. I had turned 21, and I got a job bartending at The Jubilee Room, a reporters’ bar, a cops’ bar, a sports figure bar. A Damon Runyonesque mix. I liked it there. And I could slide freebies across the bar to school buddies.

How did this colour your writing and art?

I’d say all my jobs coloured my art and writing, especially the construction jobs, bridges in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas and Minnesota.

You settled into a career as a creative director in advertising. Why that?

It was what I’d wanted since high school. Everyone tried to talk me out of it—you know, the ‘starving artist’ stuff. I started on the art side in a bullpen, and graduated to an office, had some shops of my own, worked at big agencies. It can be precarious; when creative is in your job title, you have to keep earning it.

In advertising, as in any business-oriented writing, I presume you had to write to constraints. Now you don’t. Any thoughts on that?

Actually the discipline was wonderful. Sometimes in print ads you had wordcounts and the art director would ask you to cut 35 characters so he could fit it to a graphic. You do it, and you know what? It’s better copy.

Also, you had to write around industry restrictions and client dictums—one client said no contractions, which can look awfully stilted and  school-teacherish in ad copy.

I’ve written four books of poetry, books of short stories, a novel, an essay collection, and I’ve killed some darlings—not enough, I’m sure, and I must admit, it was sometimes comfortable writing to rules in an agency situation. But try to write a 30-second TV commercial for a car. Daunting. 60-second radio, better, but no pictures—you’d better know how to make pictures in the mind. I credit NPR in helping me do that. And Stan Freberg, what a genius.

Why does sculpture appeal to you?

I can’t answer that in any conventional way. I’m not being difficult—I just can’t. It’s a fugue state with me. Time becomes non-time. I used to do assemblages as a kid and a day would elapse.

You describe your style as ‘found object’ art. Your newest book, Chickens One Day, Feathers The Next is similar – the found objects of a life. A bit about rodeo riding. A bit about advertising. A bit about motorbikes. Most of all, it’s about liking the things that make us who we are. Tell me your version.

That’s a very good version right there, your version.

I love that title. Do tell me more.  

There’s an essay in the book with that title; it’s something a very good friend used to say if the newspaper headlines mentioned a prominent death; he said it when JFK was killed. I think it was juju against the reaper. Rudy served in Vietnam, three tours, wounded twice. He was a captain in the USMC and when they stuck him behind a desk he quit. He bought into a ski resort in California, had a position with a big drug company. He was killed by a carjacker in Fresno. It’s his title.

Where do you write?

In a kitchen breakfast nook. Though I have a great mid-century modern office in a loft in a separate building—a studio we built for my wife’s silversmith work. I just slide into that booth in the morning, and only get up to do my walking periodically, or various chores.

Everyone who reads my blog knows I’m fond of horses. How do horses figure in your life?

In Chickens there’s an essay ‘The Horse Worrier’ which opens ‘Horses haunt my life’. As you know, Roz, they are so, so special. They’ve owned me for over 50 years. Fascinating, wonderful, giving creatures. I was privileged to know them, have them as friends.

One of my poetry books is titled Horses See Ghosts, and they often appear in the other poetry books as well.

You write everything – poetry, essays, short fiction and novels.

How do you decide what form an idea deserves?

I think I save horses for poetry. Nonfiction can start anywhere; presently as a list of things I just don’t get (NFTs, crypto, atrocities of Russians in Ukraine, Lego, $50,000 bottles of bourbon, Kanye, Heizer’s ‘City’…). I have a half-finished private eye book, some ideas floating around, a possible screenplay…

What’s the weirdest response you’ve had to any of your works?

I don’t know if it qualifies as weird, but I had a sculpture show in Santa Monica, shipped a dozen big pieces out there, and it sold out. I’m lucky to sell four pieces a year here in the Midwest. Go figure.

Also, a well known agent in New York read a piece of mine in a lit mag, contacted me and asked if I had a novel ready by any chance. I sent it to him. He said, in effect, have you got another one ready?

In all that, are there themes or life questions you always return to?

As a subject I like good bad guys who win over the bad guys. No one is all good, no one. I’ve known some really good bad guys, bikers, loners, marchers to their own drumbeats. People I met in paving, construction, rodeo, heavy equipment advertising, horses, writing, farm people, biking. Hot rod enthusiasts. A cop or two. Real hippies.

What is Guinotte wise about?

There was a kid whose folks were mean; they gave him a box of horse manure for Christmas. He looks at it, brightens up and says, ‘There’s got to be a pony around here somewhere!’ Optimistic. That’s me.

I’ve been flitting through your pictures on Facebook. At random, I’ve picked this.

Tell me about it.

My favourite gloves. I wore ’em today when I upended the big flower urns after a hard freeze last night. I have a dozen pairs of new mule-skin Wells-Lamont gloves, and heavy-duty Tillmans, and I reach for these. That was a postcard for my last show at The Hilliard Gallery in KC. I didn’t have any sculpture finished enough to shoot, so I used those gloves to say I’d been working.

That is admirably resourceful. Some quick-fire questions.

Hooves or Harleys? Harleys don’t die, but they also don’t nicker and gallop up when they see you.

Early mornings or late nights? Early to bed, not so early to rise. Love bed. Love sleep.

Any near-death experiences? Right now, I’d say.

Are you louder on the page or louder in real life? Page. Big talker on the page.

Find Chickens One Day Feathers The Next here.  Find Guinotte at Facebook, at his website and tweet him at @noirbut

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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What you can achieve if you try something a little scary… how I became a memoirist and novelist by @expatapple

Apple Gidley has lived all over the world, has taught English, sold SCUBA gear and negotiated British nationals out of jail when she was the British honorary consul in Equatorial Guinea. Her writing is powered by a fierce interest in the history of the many cultures she’s lived in and her latest novel, Have You Eaten Rice Today, brings to life Malaya in the 1950s.

My first question has to be: how do you get someone out of jail?

By getting to the police station before the person had been processed. No one likes paperwork.

The jungle drums worked fast in Malabo. I grew to dread the words ‘Apple, we’ve got a situation’. Charges were invariably trumped up, with the aim of getting a bribe – not something I ever paid. I think it helped that I’m a woman. I smiled a lot. Reminded the jailer-in-charge that it would be a terrible pity for the press in Britain to hear of Mr Smith being jailed for taking photographs of kids playing soccer, because the minister would look bad. It was blarney really, and I never showed how nervous I actually felt. The adrenaline would keep me going until it was all over, then I’d shake.

Maybe that’s why I don’t get anxious facing a roomful of people. Public speaking is not nearly as scary as dealing with one crabby man with a gun.

And that’s how you became a published writer, isn’t it?

A number of years ago I was a keynote speaker at a conference for families in global transition. It seemed to go well, and people suggested I write the stories down. It became my book Expat Life Slice by Slice.

You’ve continued to write, with another memoir collection and several novels. What has helped you become the writer you are now?

Reading. Reading. Reading. All styles, most genres, though I don’t like horror. And eavesdropping, for dialogue.

Who are the important people in your writing life?

My husband. He is a tough but fair critic. I’ve had to learn to listen. And I’m incredibly fortunate to have a group of five trusted people around the world who are my first readers. Also, I run the Writers’ Circle of St Croix in the Virgin Islands and am hugely supported by them.

I have also had fabulous editors, from whom I have learned so much. I don’t think they get enough credit for pushing us to be better.

How do you refill the well?

Fortunately the well hasn’t run dry yet. If I get stuck on something, I’ll walk the dog or weed the garden – anything rather than clean the house. Since I decided to try my hand at writing, I try to write every day. I get pissy when I can’t.

Where is home?

Wherever I happen to be hanging my hat. Currently St Croix. I suppose I’m a chameleon in that I’m adaptable. My life has been peripatetic, both as a child and an adult. I’ve always been up for trying somewhere new, something different. And you don’t know what you can achieve until you try something a little scary. There are a couple of places I would rather not live again but I wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to experience them.

What jobs have you done besides writing (and jail negotiations)?

When I married and we went abroad, I knew a career wasn’t on the cards. I feel immense gratitude that I was able to be at home, wherever that was, with my children but I also always became involved in the community. And I’ve been fortunate to pick up work in most places, if there weren’t visa restrictions.

I edited a magazine for Cheshire Homes for disabled people (Far Eastern Region) while living in Singapore and Thailand. It was a humbling experience. Any bad day I had paled into nothingness compared with the challenges faced by these disabled people. But that did not stop me haranguing them if they didn’t deliver an article they had promised me. My sticking to deadlines perhaps gave people a sense of normalcy.

I ran my own interior design business in Scotland. I preferred commercial work to residential, where we got tetchy exchanges between spouses. Then I sold SCUBA equipment in Texas. That’s a great leveller. No one looks good with a regulator in their mouth.

You are so right. Consider the Bond movies…

When we knew we were heading to West Africa I took a Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages in case the chance came along to teach English.

While there I wrote geopolitical reports for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which I enjoyed. I suppose it was there I started to consider writing as a possible job.

Your novels are historical fiction, Fireburn, Transfer and Have You Eaten Rice Today?, which is your most recent. What’s the appeal for you of historical fiction?

History has always fascinated me. I went to boarding school in Australia and I’ve never forgiven them for not allowing me to study both ancient and modern history. Instead I had to choose a science, which didn’t interest me at all. Anyway, for the writer, historical fiction involves diving deep into a period – not just the story events but the back story, the dress, the food, the manners, the way people spoke, the way people moved around. It’s fabulous.

Have You Eaten Rice Today? is an enigma. The title is thoughtful, but the blurb copy describes it as ‘intense, drama driven and suspenseful’. What pulls the two aspects together? 

Have You Eaten Rice Today? is a salutation used throughout Asia – a kind of ‘how’s it going?’ The timeframe of the novel is the early 1950s in Malaya when communists fueled general disgruntlement at the slowness of Britain to grant independence, merdeka. The communist terrorists had camps deep in the jungle where discipline was rigid, discomfort enormous and food scarce. Hunger drove many to surrender. It’s a story of misunderstandings and love in this violent period.

In your memoir collection Crucian Fusion, Essays, Interviews, Stories you mix fact and fiction, which can be tricky as readers usually prefer one or the other. How did you decide what to fictionalise and what to keep as truth? What boundaries about this did you set? How did you bring it all together in one work?

Interesting question! You’re right, people do usually prefer fact or fiction but I wrote Crucian Fusion as a thank you to St Croix, the island that has embraced me.

I’ve been writing the essays since I arrived here in 2013 – a diary of events and day-to-day happenings. Then, because I’m nosey, I wanted to learn people’s stories – and everyone has one – so I made a list of people, some of whom I knew in passing, who I would like to know more about. I ended up with eight conversations, which was such a privilege for me, particularly as one chap I spoke to has since died.

The short stories are pure self-indulgence. Three are historical. One brought to light a little-known piece of Crucian history – indentured labourers were shipped from India in the 1860s, a shortlived experiment that cost a lot in human misery and life.

Across all your books, are there recurrent themes and curiosities?

Actually, curiosity lurks in all my books. Without it I don’t think you can travel well. The meshing of cultures, the crossing of bridges literally and metaphorically. Love, death…. you know, all the usual stuff.

In the book I’m currently working on, dementia is a stream, particularly the effect on the spouse. It was also a theme in Transfer, now I think about it, but not up front. I think to suffer from Alzheimer’s, where you are still aware of life, must be the most Godawful thing for all concerned.

What do you like to read?

Historical fiction, of course! Geraldine Brooks, Tracy Chevalier, Abraham Verghese, although I guess Cutting for Stone only just scrapes in as historical. All genres really. And absolutely anything by the Trinidadian writer Monique Roffey. I’ve just finished Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, which was terrific.

Also, travel essays – particularly ones that border on philosophical. I love the way Bruce Chatwin wrote – The Anatomy of Restlessness truly spoke to me. As does anything by Pico Iyer – The Global Soul is chockfull of wonderful essays.

What are you working on next?

So here I am touting historical fiction but my WIP is a contemporary novel set in Venice. In my naiveté I believed there would be less research and it would be a faster book to write. Wrong! But I’m thoroughly enjoying the process. Another month and it should be ready for beta readers. Maybe.

Some quick and perhaps frivolous questions…

Rice or bread?

With a book titled Have You Eaten Rice Today? and considering a large portion of my life has been spent in Asia – it has to be bread. I’m kidding. Rice.

Early mornings or late nights?

Late nights with a glass of bourbon, or wine.

Planes, boats or wheels?

Oh, that’s not a fair question. Planes, though maybe not so much now. Airlines seem to have gone out of their way to make the experience cramped and harried unless you’re up front. Although the exhilaration as you land somewhere new is still thrilling.

Boats because some of my best holidays have been sailing in the Caribbean or along the Dalmatian coast with our adult kids.

Wheels, because I love to drive. Especially on my own. That sense of freedom when no one knows where you are. When my children were little we lived in Thailand, and my husband was often away, so I’d bundle them into the car and we’d take off. Wonderful adventures before cellphones could track your every move. I miss that sometimes.

And you didn’t ask about trains….

By all means, give me trains.

I really love trains. A sense of distance, really going somewhere and seeing the scenery as you clickety-clack along the tracks. Europe is great for trains. Maybe it’ll be trains that get me back across the Atlantic.

What’s on your desk?

Clutter. But it’s my clutter and I know where everything is.

Find Apple on her website, on Twitter @expatapple, and on Facebook. Find Have You Eaten Rice Today? here.

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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From travel journalism to inner journeys – Mark Chesnut @munderamedia on writing his first memoir

How do you make a career with words? And once you’re established in a niche, how do you then uproot to a completely new kind of writing? Mark Chesnut has done just that. For most of his life he has been a writer, editor and content creator for the travel industry, but he’s now just released a highly personal work, Prepare For Departure – a memoir of his relationship with his mother as she nears the end of her life. We talk about it all here

First, let me say that’s a great title!

Glad you like it! It came pretty early in the writing process and love how it works as a double entendre. Luckily, my wonderful editors at Vine Leaves Press also liked the title, so it stayed.

How did you become a writer?

I became a writer by following my natural interests, I guess. I wasn’t someone who at an early age would have said “I want to be a writer.” But my mother, Eunice Chesnut, went back to college when I was young and got her bachelor’s and then her master’s degrees, so I was raised in a household where there were a lot of books and a lot of writing went on. I remember falling asleep to the sound of my mother’s big black typewriter click-clacking in the next room.

I was the only kid living at home and it took me several years to become socially adept and make friends, so I had a lot of time on my hands. One of the ways I spent my time was writing — but it wasn’t literature. I wrote crazy things like promotional copy for my imaginary airline, Chesway Global, and program guides for my imaginary television network, ITV (I didn’t realize there already was an ITV in the United Kingdom; when I found out, I tried other names. IBS was another choice, until I discovered it also stood for irritable bowel syndrome).

In short, I used writing to explore my creativity and fuel my imagination.

Any angsty teenage writing?

Yes, I would write when I was feeling upset. I’d type out my feelings in ALL CAPS, to express the urgency of my emotions.

How did that lead to professional writing?

My first editorial jobs were in medical and university publishing houses, and then a tiny weekly newspaper in New York City. Already, though, I was writing about nearly every trip I took, just for my own benefit. I enjoyed recording my experiences and documenting my feelings about the trips I took.

Then a few years ago, my mother became ill and it was clear she wouldn’t be around much more. I started using writing as a way to sort out my feelings, the way I’d typed in all caps as a teenager. It was like therapy. I had been documenting my trips with words, but now I was writing about a different kind of journey; one my mother and I were taking together.

Most of your work is travel journalism – how did you choose that niche?

I must thank my mother for giving me a typewriter all those years ago, and I also must also thank her for giving me the travel bug. I grew up in Western New York State. But both of my parents were from Kentucky, so we traveled from New York to Kentucky at least three times a year, for the first 17 years of my life.

I learned at an early age that travel could be exciting, emotional and a wonderful escape from the stress of everyday life. It made me curious about seeing more of the world. During layovers in Chicago, I’d stand in front of a giant departure board and stare, trying to imagine what life must be like in all the destinations on that board.

I looked for work in publishing and advertising as soon as I graduated from college. I changed jobs quite a bit — like many recent graduates who aren’t sure what they want to do with their lives. I enjoyed working in advertising as well as medical and scholarly publishing, and my job with the free weekly newspaper was exhausting but a lot of fun. But none of them satisfied me. They didn’t tap into my passion. I was obsessed with travel, and I saved money and frequent flyer miles to venture out as often as I could with my meager budget and limited vacation days.

I realized my true dream was to unite my editorial skills with my wanderlust. I started applying for travel-related publishing jobs. I applied four times before I finally got a job as assistant editor at the travel trade publisher where I would work for years and for whom I still do freelance work. That set the stage for the next decades of my life.  

Where is home and why is it home?

I live in New York City, in a cool neighborhood called Jackson Heights in Queens. Just being there is like traveling the world. I love it. It’s totally normal to hear multiple languages spoken on just one block. You could see a woman in a sari, a Buddhist monk in his robe, a woman in a burqa, a gay couple holding hands and a drag queen heading to a show at a local gay bar. And nobody blinks an eye. Queens is the future.

How much time do you spend there?

Most of my time, working from home. But I travel at least once a month, and since the pandemic started, my husband and I have been spending a month or two in other places, working remotely. We’ve done extended-stay remote working visits in Hollywood, Mexico City, New Orleans and Guadalajara.

As travel and holiday-type activities are your daily bread, how do you get away from it all?

I block off one month per year to stay home. But it usually doesn’t work out. Either a very necessary press trip comes up, or an irresistible opportunity to go somewhere new.

When I’m really going on vacation, I visit family. And I like to go to places that inspire me creatively; places where I can disconnect but still feel engaged. But then I usually get so inspired that I’ll start writing or thinking of new projects. It’s hard for me to get away from work because my mind is always churning.

How did you cope with lockdown?

New York City was the first pandemic epicenter in the US — and Queens was the epicenter of the epicenter. It was intense. We stayed inside for weeks and could hear ambulances, day and night, heading to a nearby hospital. It was psychologically difficult and the uncertainty was scary, because at first no one understood what was going on. I was glad to have my husband Angel, who has a very positive personality, to alleviate the stress. We played board games, dominos, cards. We had dance nights where we’d watch musicals on demand and dance along with them. We made up things to do and enjoyed each other’s company, and that helped a lot.

What made you write a memoir? That, if you’ll forgive the figure of speech, is quite a departure.

It is. My usual writing is destination features, travel guides, hotel reviews and tourism industry news. Other than saying I liked a hotel suite or a meal in a restaurant, it isn’t that personal. Even though I’d been making my living as a writer for decades, the memoir was a whole new direction that required new skills.

Yes, informative material is quite like a mask. Or several masks – being useful or inspiring or amusing. Our deeper feelings and personal lives are almost irrelevant. But memoir requires introspection. And your memoir is about as personal as one could get, with big, difficult themes. How did that sit with you?

I started writing the memoir for myself, not for publication. It was a way of coping with my mother’s decline. But once I realized that I wanted to make it into a book, I looked for help. I signed up for memoir writing classes and had my writing workshopped, getting feedback from instructors and other students. I started reading memoirs by other authors with voices I could relate to or stories that were similar to mine. And I read articles and essays about the craft of writing memoirs and creative nonfiction. All of that helped immensely.

Also, in a memoir, we have to share and examine the less certain moments. Journalism usually involves being in charge of the material, but in a memoir we open up the times when we’re not in charge. We grapple with questions that maybe can’t be answered.

Writing about one’s personal experiences really does open you up to questions, many of which, as you said, can never be fully answered.

The classes I took were interesting and helpful. When I submitted essays about how upset I was about things that had happened between my mother and me, the other students and instructors would often suggest possible explanations for her behavior or attitude that I’d never thought about before.

When I was 12, for example, my mother and I walked into a restaurant in Leitchfield, Kentucky, and the waitress said “what can I get for you ladies today?” I was so embarrassed that my face felt hot, and I also felt hurt that my mother didn’t correct her. When some of my fellow students read that chapter from my memoir, they pointed out that she might have ignored the comment because it could have embarrassed me even more if she had been confrontational about the mistake. So while writing a memoir certainly can open up old wounds and expose your weaknesses and embarrassments, it can also bring new understanding and points of view that can be really therapeutic.

I’ve also found it very moving to get feedback now from people who’ve bought the book and found parts of themselves in the story. I’ve almost been brought to tears by some of the notes I’ve gotten from people who also felt like misfits when they were growing up, or who struggled to come out, or who’ve experienced similarly difficult moments as their parents were aging or passed away. The more I hear from readers, the more I realize that this book isn’t just my story, it’s a story about issues and experiences that a lot of people have faced in one way or another.

One reader wrote me a touching note that said she felt like she never had a voice for her experience of caring for her elderly father and finding an assisted living facility for him. Until she read my book she hadn’t found a voice that spoke to her about what she and her father were going through. That was such a beautiful thing to hear, and I can totally relate because when we’re dealing a situation with aging parents, we can often feel isolated; even our closest friends or family might not fully understand what we’re going through emotionally, or they may not feel comfortable hearing about it. I hope my book helps to give a voice to other people’s experiences, too. We all deserve to be heard, and to share our joys and our pain.  

A significant part of this memoir is the character of your mother.

Eunice Chesnut was a magnificent character, as well as a very cool mother, and a big part of writing this book was to keep her memory alive. She was an amazing woman but she wasn’t perfect, and she had her hands full with me, a strange, often bratty son who turned out to be gay; she had trouble feeling comfortable about my orientation.

How did you find it, portraying her in her full glory and difficulty?

To give the story depth and make it real, I had to show the happy as well as the challenging aspects of our relationship. I aimed to portray her and our relationship in a realistic, layered and multifaceted way, to show how love between a parent and a child is imperfect but can endure. I was concerned about doing her justice, and I was also nervous that some of her friends might think I was doing a “Mommie Dearest” job on her, making her look bad. But I’ve been getting good reactions from her friends, as well as from general readers, about how I portrayed her and our relationship, so I think and hope I’ve struck the right balance. People have commented positively about how the book portrays the complex and loving relationship between a parent and child.

Did she know you were writing it?

Eunice didn’t know I was writing the book. She did know I was taking notes on what was happening to us when she was in the nursing home, and sometimes when she said something funny or clever or deep, I’d whip out my cell phone and jot down what she was saying. I didn’t want to miss a thing.

I think she’d be a bit embarrassed about the more personal aspects of the book since she was a private person. Yet she was also super social and loved people, so I also think she’d be happy to see that so many people can relate to our story, that it’s making other people laugh and cry and might help some people as they deal with their own difficult situations.

Were there many drafts? How much input did you get from beta readers and editors?

The manuscript went through a lot of revisions. I’d submit a chapter for review in my class, then take their feedback and revise. Sometimes I’d resubmit that same chapter again later. I also got lots of input from an amazing little writing group that I formed with a group of other students.

One of the most important things I did was to step back from the manuscript for a few months. That was crucial, because I’d been reading, re-reading, writing and rewriting the same material for too long.  

When I finally looked at the manuscript again, I tried to read each chapter as if it were a standalone essay written by someone I didn’t know. I asked myself: What is the main storyline or point for each chapter essay? How does each chapter serve the overall storyline of the manuscript? And, why should I or anyone care what this essay is about? Is it funny, touching, heartbreaking, dramatic, informative, educational?

Reviewing my work through that lens, I realized several chapters needed major overhauls — thinking about what readers want and what would resonate with them, educate them, entertain them. I realized that I had to start seeing the work not just as a memoir about myself.

Would you ever write fiction? Or even poetry?

I’m more attracted to fiction than to poetry. I’ve done initial drafts on a few short fiction pieces, and at some point I may start workshopping them, sending them to journals, etc. But I realize that will require more education and research on my part, since fiction is a far cry from memoir, and an even further cry from travel writing. The one thing that all these forms have in common, of course, is that we’re trying to tell a compelling story. And, in my case, I see it all as a journey.

Find Prepare For Departure (published by Vine Leaves Press) here.

Find Mark on Twitter @munderamedia, Facebook and his website.

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Eight points for writing a memoir in personal essays

My current work in progress is a memoir in essays, in the vein of Not Quite Lost.

It’s been growing organically. First I had the urge to write A Something. Then another Something, which seemed to belong with the first. Now there’s a sizeable collection that wants to be a book. It’s ready for the real work.  

Here’s the real work.

1 Look for a subject

What themes are singing out of the material? What is my subject and what is worth saying about it? A memoir like this needs direction. (Even if the point is travelling without a sense of direction, as I did the first time.)

A reminder: a memoir is not autobiography. It’s not everything that happened to you. It has a subject – like divorce, or friendship, or chef training or becoming a shepherd. You might contain one autobiography, but many memoirs.

A memoir also, usually, has an argument – so it’s not just how you became a shepherd, it’s what you want to tell us about humanity.  

2 Look for a running order

A memoir – of any type – needs a narrative arc. Even if life isn’t neat, the memoir needs an ordered shape and a sense of development. You’re making art out of life. This also means it doesn’t have to unfold chronologically. In my memoir, some pieces are back story but I might leave them until late. Some are asides that are outside chronology. Everything will be placed to serve the main subject and argument, for resonance or contrast or reinforcement. I’m creating the running order before I do any editing, while the pieces are still rough. Then I’ll know how to shape them.

3 Look for repetition

I’ve built the book by writing whenever the wind was in my sails. To preserve the spontaneity, I didn’t reread anything. It’s highly likely I’ve written some ideas several times over. Now I need to find those accidental repetitions. However, not all repetition is bad. Sometimes a short repetition will enhance, like a refrain. 

4 Anxiety

I’m hoping I haven’t repeated myself too much, or it might be a very short book. (NB All books involve anxiety. Will it work? Is there enough?)

5 Look for a title

Why is it that the shortest pieces of writing take the longest time? Oh, the woe of finding a title. (I’ve written about titles here and there’s a titles workshop in my workbook.)

For this book, I have many near-titles but nothing ideal. They’re in a text file. A long list, riffing on an idea, changing a noun or a verb, stumbling on a new word and doing it all over again.

(Wait! Stumbling on… I never tried that.)

This task travels with me most of the time. When I’m not at my computer, I worry at the title on scraps of paper. They look like the ravings of a person with an obsession. But the perfect title will pull the whole book into place.

6 It’s okay to make a mess

I’ve written the pieces with illiterate abandon. If they are somehow found by someone else before I can edit them, I will die of embarrassment.

I’m a fan of the uninhibited, slapdash first draft. Precision can come later. So can context and other courtesies. What’s more important to me is the spirit in the words, the raw moment that goes wherever and winds up somewhere surprising.

7 Structure will get you out of mess

I often say this when I’m coaching novelists: the words are the skin. The real work of the story is done by the structure – what you emphasise, what you make the reader look at and feel. So it is with this kind of memoir. The structure will tell you how to edit. Once you know a piece’s overall role in the book, you can edit with confidence. (There’s loads more about structure in my plot book.)

8 Read with a pen

Reading is a highly interrupted activity at the moment. Prose is a trigger. I look like a person with no attention span as I put the book down and scramble a note. If a book’s in the same territory as my WIP, it makes me write. If a book isn’t, it still makes me write. That’s how you know you’ve got a book going on.

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Wilderness woman falls into memoir writing – Wren Godfrey Chapman

Some people have always written. Some don’t become writers until friends and family urge them to. This is not usually a recipe for success, but Jeanette (Wren) Godfrey Chapman found a publisher, and her memoir Pirate Girl Falls Through Beaver Dam: A Memoir of Adventurous Lessons in Earth School is published this week.

Wren, are there any writers in your family? Was the writing process natural for you?

There are no writers in my family although many write well. Writing this memoir was akin to roping in the squall from hell. Why would anyone in his or her right mind spend years chained to a computer in mind-boggling isolation, hacking away in mental anguish, only to trash godawful first drafts and start over from scratch.

Yes, writers know that particular hell. But you’ve seen more squalls than most, and your usual habitat is the adventuring life, not the hermitage with a typewriter. What made you want to put your life into writing?

After our mystifying mother died, my sister Susan (Suzanne in the manuscript) blabbed to our sainted father the adventures and mishaps of my childhood and young adulthood. Only she got the stories all wrong, so she told me to write them down. I did, and read them aloud to Dad. He laughed his head off and said I should write a memoir, since it sounded like I spent my entire life falling through beaver dams––literally and figuratively.

And that explains the title!

I recorded for my dad the vignettes that are in my manuscript plus around 10 other major events, but I trashed them after the first draft, as they refused to pull the story along a forward path. My wonderful Dad passed away at age 96 (he was still driving and playing golf) and I put the work in a drawer for over 20 years until a man I almost married, Sidney Snelgrove (Shepard Seagraves in the book), shockingly reappeared in my life.

In the late 1960s Sidney and I hitch-hiked to Key West with 10 dollars in our pockets. He became the owner of Sloppy Joe’s bar in Key West and made, for years, around one million dollars a day in T-shirt sales alone. After 40 years, he bought a plantation just five miles away from my home. We reacquainted and he wanted to know what went wrong between us, so I let him read my old journal. Like my dad, he laughed until he cried and said it sounded like a book I should write.

Sidney died unexpectedly at age 74 and never saw the finished manuscript. He is terribly missed by many people. Including me. Many of the people in Pirate Girl are now dead.

Wren’s house, Sea of Peace

My Cherokee friend, Free, said I should name the book after my lessons in ‘Earth School’. His astute counsel has never left me and I try to live by his fine example––even though I mostly fail.

Before you decided to look for a publisher, you showed this book to people only for personal reasons, people who were closely involved with you. What’s it been like, opening the material to strangers? 

Except for a very early editor and folks in a writing workshop, I did not show my manuscript to anyone before publishing––especially people closely involved with me. But I did show it to the novelist and wilderness writer Peter Matthiessen. Around a year before his death we went for a swim in Long Island Sound. He read and edited my chapter ‘The Bear’. We went for a walk on the beach and he carefully picked out a pebble and handed it to me with great ceremony. I still have it, of course.

On the beach: novelist and wilderness writer Peter Matthiessen with Wren

And, hellish squalls or not, you’re writing another book?

Yes. I must be crazy to. Someone, please stop me.

It’s called The Killing of Black Bart, who is a character from Pirate Girl, and how he and several family members were murdered, murders that were never solved.

How did you build Pirate Girl? Is it all from memory?

Much of it is from memory. It’s difficult to forget being tied to a mast during a fierce tropical storm, but I also kept a detailed journal while living in the Bahamas and Colorado.

How did you meet your publisher?

I scoured the Internet for publishing companies that worked with interesting authors and subject matter and produced drop-dead gorgeous cover art. Vine Leaves Press won hands down, and I am grateful they accepted my manuscript.

Where did your adventurous urge come from?

I simply enjoyed the rich experience of life and grew up camping, canoeing and mountain climbing with my family. I never thought twice about living alone in stark wilderness. Also, in high school I read The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac and took to heart his quote: ‘I saw that my life was a vast glowing empty page, and I could do anything I wanted’.

What do you like to read?

Memoirs by adventurers and travellers. Currently, I am reading Straight on till Morning, The Biography of Beryl Markham by Mary S Lovell.

What scares you?

Living in the once-great USA, now teetering on the cliff of fascism and authoritarian rule. Costa Rica here I come.

Is there anything else you wish you’d done? And anything you wish you hadn’t?

I have no regrets except selling my trawler Evening Star, which I lived on for seven years, and not buying that small coffee plantation in Latin America when I had a chance. And I wish I’d never fallen in love––the scourge of humankind.

Any final stirring words?

It is my fervent hope that folks of every age who read my book––especially women––will come away with the knowledge that no matter the vicissitudes of life, it is perfectly acceptable to fall in and out of love, search for one’s own authentic spirituality, and live life to the fullest.    

But hell’s bells, I’m still having adventures at 72 years old. Next summer I’m heading out to Montana for my third major vision quest. My first one was at 12 years old. My second was after a marriage dissolved.

This upcoming quest will be for how to face old age––not with tiresome grace and dignity, but with long white hair streaming down my back as I ride an old Indian motorcycle along the Blue Ridge Parkway, stoned, flying past wild azaleas and gnarly rhododendron (like me). In truth, I’m shocked to reach older age when I should be long dead many times over.

Find Jeanette on Facebook and on her website. Find Pirate Girl Falls Through Beaver Dam: A Memoir of Adventurous Lessons in Earth School

If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Why should anybody read about your life? The 7 Ss for writing a memoir with universal appeal

I’ve recently been coaching a memoirist, and these are the key concepts we were musing about.

1 Struggles

Show the struggles. Many people are spurred to write a memoir because they overcame a great trouble, survived against the odds or scored a personal success. But that postive focus can steer you wrong if you write a memoir about it. A memoir is not about how well you did or the things you should be congratulated for. It’s not about showing off. A memoir is about how hard everything was – and also how hilarious, heartbreaking and heartwarming. But mostly, it’s about how hard it was. So show us that.

Actually, struggle is the point of most stories, whether fiction or non-fiction. A story isn’t just the ‘what’, it’s the ‘how’. While there might be a limited number of plots and whats, there are infinite ‘hows’. The ‘hows’ contain the vibrant, varied stuff of life, and strife. And difficulty, and challenge, and humanity. They are the story.

2 Strengths

Don’t focus exclusively on your strengths. They won’t make the reader root for you. If you show us how you successfully did something, the reader will think you found it easy. Especially if the success seems to come from a talent, or a birth circumstance, or a personality that is more courageous or rebellious than average. Your strengths are part of you, of course, and you’re right to be proud of them, but they don’t help the reader connect with you. But – reprising point 1 – struggle does make the reader connect. When we struggle, we are all in the same place – hopeless, lost, scared, angry, anxious, yearning, or making great sacrifices, or caught between several irreconcilable choices. That’s where we can all really talk to each other.  

3 Scenes

Some memoir manuscripts are dense screeds of narrative explanation. This can be dull to read. Memoirists often don’t realise they can give us ‘scenes’ as well, just as a novel would, where they describe actions and things people said.

‘I take it,’ they said, ‘that you speak good Spanish?’

 ‘Not one word,’ we said.

We all do this naturally in conversation anyway. And you can do it in memoir. Dramatising is good. Dialogue is good. Description and action are good too:

‘The judge turned to me and cocked a thick eyebrow…’

(Excerpts are from Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction.)

4 Structure and shape

Some memoir manuscripts are just a collection of anecdotes. No matter how interesting they are, the reader wants more. They seek a bigger structure and a shape, a beginning, middle and end. They want a reason why the story starts where it does, and why the end is the end (because it could go on through the rest of your life, couldn’t it?). The beginning won’t be your ‘I was born’ moment, either, or not always.

What about the stuff between the beginning and end? Aim for a sense of development, of things changing all the time. You’ll need turning points – which means you need an awareness of story structure. You might have seen screenwriters talk about the three-act structure – which, confusingly is actually four. Essentially, it’s where the reader starts to look for a bigger change, and it usually comes at the quarter marks of the book.

So at some point you should plan how the overall journey will work, the phases the book will go through. Look for distinct turning points, and massage the writing so they fall at the quarter points of the book. By three-quarters of the way through, the amount of struggle should be reaching its most significant point, with the biggest pressures. The final part of the book will be trying to establish a new order, ready for a new status quo. (There’s loads more about story structure here. )

Wait! Your story is real life. Some phases might have taken years. Others happened over a few hectic and traumatic days. How will it fit this pattern? Remember, you are not creating a day-by-day diary, you’re creating a ‘story’, which is an artistic construct. You are also adding – interpretation, emphasis, insight and context. Maybe including flashbacks for back story. All of this allows you to shorten or lengthen, in order to give the reader the best experience.

5 Significance

The reader wants significance. They want to feel your story is interesting and also universal. Whatever it starts with, whatever you do, a memoir isn’t just about you, fighting your plucky battles, finding your way through. It’s also about the reader and the big truth we are all involved in.

6 Splurge

You often have to dig for the real heart of an incident, why it matters enough to be in the book. So splurge about everything, as if no one’s there, all the time in the world, no book to fill. Just take a stroll with your thoughts, dwell in them. You’ll write far too much, but it’s how you find the gems. Then open your eyes and start to think of the reader. You might also find that some experiences you thought were formative were not.

You won’t necessarily know the book’s truest shape until you do this.

7 Seek

Write with a sense of learning about yourself. That journey of discovery will also become the reader’s. In the end, your book will bring you – and them – to a new place, perhaps wiser, perhaps comforted, perhaps entertained, perhaps changed, perhaps renewed. Perhaps everything.

That’s why they should read about your life.

There’s loads more about story structure in my plot book.

If you’d like help with your own writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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How I made my writing career – writing coach, novelist and memoirist Gina Troisi @Troisi_Gina

How do you get a career working with words? We all find our own routes. In this occasional series, I’m interviewing people who’ve made writing the centre of their life and now have a distinguished publishing reputation. Today: Gina Troisi, who has award nominations, writer-in-residence posts and is now about to release a memoir, The Angle of Flickering Light, with Vine Leaves Press.

Roz Tell me how you got here.

Gina I decided I wanted to be a writer in third grade—it sounds cliché, but I clearly remember learning the writing process in the classroom, and becoming fascinated with it. I grew up writing furiously in journals, crafting stories and poems; it was a creative outlet I desperately needed, but I barely showed my work to anyone. I had very little confidence.

As an undergraduate, I majored in English Literature, and after college, there was a stretch of years where I took writing classes out of a local woman’s home. I was going through a very difficult time in my life, but these classes offered me the best kind of solace. It was this fabulous teacher, Nancy Eichhorn, who suggested I apply for an MFA, and encouraged me to submit my work for publication. I began working on my MFA in 2007, and I spent that time focusing on craft and technique; I immersed myself in the act of becoming a better writer. When I completed my MFA in 2009, I began to send my work out for publication.

Roz Your memoir, The Angle of Flickering Light, is about your troubled childhood. Were there many steps before you felt able to show the manuscript?

Gina Oh yes!

Roz How many incarnations did it go through?

Gina In some ways, I’d been writing about the themes my entire life—about my childhood, about recklessness and the act of numbing oneself, and about the search for identity and belonging.

I’d been writing about those themes my entire life… my childhood, recklessness, the act of numbing oneself… the search for identity and belonging

Gina Troisi

Roz When I’ve worked with memoirists, it’s a long struggle to find the wisdom and insight to give readers a meaningful experience.

Gina I think writing memoir takes a great level of self-awareness. We need to get to a place personally where we understand ourselves—our actions and our decisions, our patterns, and the ways in which we’ve been shaped.

I remember hearing the author Joyce Maynard say that in order to write a memoir you have to “let the ashes cool.”

Roz “Let the ashes cool…” I love this.

Gina It takes time to process the moments that have made up our lives, and to gain an honest perspective. I had to reach a point where the “I” in my book was just another character.

Roz Also, we change.

Gina We encounter so many versions of ourselves throughout our lives. 

Roz Yes, and we might not realise unless we write about a time when we were much younger, or under great strain. I see it in my old notebooks, the things that upset or amused me ten years ago, twenty years ago. I recognise where the feelings came from, but I would not react that way now. And then other things are exactly the same, they never change.

The Angle of Flickering Light has been commended in several awards over the years, as far back as 2012. Tell me about its gestation.

Gina The book originated when I was in graduate school. My intent was not to write a book-length work. But I found that I was generating stand-alone essays with recurring themes and characters.

I originally presented the book as a collection of essays back in 2012, and I began sending it to agents and small presses. In 2013, I received interest from a small press, but the editor wanted major structural changes, and to morph it from an essay collection into a memoir. I dove deeply into that revision, but the press decided to pass. So I found myself with two versions of the book, and by this point, I wasn’t sure which was the more structurally sound. I took a break to focus on other projects, but continued to send the original version out to contests. At the end of 2018, I returned to the memoir with fresh eyes, and I spent about seven months reworking it.

A couple of authors from my graduate program, Penny Guisinger and Alexis Paige, had both published books with Vine Leaves Press. I read and loved both of their books, which led me to other VLP titles. The writing was exceptional, and Jessica Bell’s covers are amazing. I decided to submit, and to my great delight, they accepted the memoir.

Roz Inevitably a memoir will involve real people. How did you handle this?

Gina I changed many names and places. I also omitted details and characters, and sometimes merged and compressed events and moments. Every choice I made was to either protect the privacy of others, or for the sake of narrative clarity.

Roz Tell me about that beautiful title.

Gina The original title was Shadows on the Sidewalks, which is a title of one of the chapters. The chapter focuses on the narrator’s relationship with her boyfriend, who is struggling with heroin addiction. But while much of this book is about wandering and restlessness, about movement and motion, I didn’t want the title to indicate that the relationship in that chapter was the focal point of the book. It’s actually about the narrator’s relationship with herself.

The Angle of Flickering Light is a line from an intimate moment in the narrative, and I like that it’s an image, but also speaks to the idea of finding flickers of light in darkness. The book is largely about hope and resilience, and about searching for light within, rather than outside of oneself.

The book is largely about hope and resilience… searching for light within oneself

Gina Troisi

Roz Yes, it works well. As you say, the title is the reader’s lens for the whole book. The Angle of Flickering Light is also mysterious, alluring. It beckons you in.

Let’s talk about the structure you used for The Angle of Flickering Light.

Gina Structuring this memoir was the most challenging part of the process, particularly because it covers such a wide range of years. When I returned to the book in 2018, my main goal was to find and thread the narrative throughline more tightly in order to clarify and highlight the heart of the story.

Roz I love that moment – when I finally grasp the emotional purpose of the book I’m writing. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, I’m always looking for it. That’s when I understand what to do with my material.

Gina Once I found the prominent thread, I attempted to tailor each chapter to illuminate it, and it enabled me to veer off into the past or the future as I saw fit—to move around in time more freely.

Roz Moving on, you’ve been widely published in literary magazines. Was it all leading towards this memoir?

Gina I think a lot of it was, yes. But there are also themes and subjects that tend to enter my work often, no matter what genre I am working in. Some of these are addiction and perseverance and mortality.

Much of my work explores the ways in which we survive. And I’ve always been interested in the relationships between people—in the way we connect with one another in raw and authentic ways.

Roz Who do you like to read? Who are your influences?

Gina Oh gosh, there are so many. Joan Didion, Andre Dubus II, and Alice Munro are a few of my heroes. Jeanette Winterson. Lynda Hull, Sylvia Plath, Mary Oliver for poetry. How about you?

Roz Many, many many. From your list, Joan Didion is a favourite. Also Hilary Mantel for the way she explores the humanity of historical moments. Ann Patchett for her sweeping sense of romance, even though she does not write romances, if you see what I mean. Taylor Jenkins-Reid for sass. Janet Fitch for rawness – read her and she seems to take your skin off. Meg Wolitzer too. I’ve just read Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, very slowly. Not because it was difficult, but because I wanted to savour every moment.

You’ve studied for an MFA and also taken a writer in residence post. What did these experiences give you? Methods, routines, anything else?

Gina My MFA was a low-residency program, so I attended seminars and workshops two times a year for ten days at a time, while the rest of the year I worked one-on-one with mentors, and met monthly deadlines. This schedule taught me how to incorporate writing into my real life—to prioritize it over almost everything else, and to integrate it into my world despite my work schedule or personal relationships.

Roz This is so wise! I remember when that happened to me. I found myself among people who always had a book on the go, or maybe more than one. I had tried various creative pursuits, but had missed the essential lesson – how to make an art the centre of my life, which was what I needed. I suddenly felt at home.  

Gina The writer-in-residence post gave me the beautiful gift of time, and also allowed me to work with some wonderful creative writing students. Both experiences offered me inspiration, stimulation, and purpose.

Roz You’re a writing coach as well as an author. How do you protect your creative energy while also giving your best to students?

Gina I love working with students, and I find it feeds and nurtures me creatively. It’s such meaningful work. I am doing it less and less since I started my day job at an educational assessment company a few years back because in order to protect my writing time, I often have to say no when I’d like to say yes.

Roz You wrote a terrific post about this on Ian Rogers’s blog, But I Also Have A Day Job  In it you describe so well the artistic lifestyle – the freedom to wander, the patchwork of randomly acquired jobs that let you make writing the centre of your life. But you found it all had a price.

Gina For many years, I resisted the idea of a full-time job because I was terrified it wouldn’t allow me enough time to write. So I juggled part-time jobs with various schedules: I tended bar, I ran a writing center at a community college, I taught and tutored. I ate meals in the car while driving from job to job. I had no health insurance, barely any savings, and no money put aside for retirement. One day I added up how many hours I was working, and I found that I was working at least 40 hours a week, but without any of the benefits, like paid days off and holidays. And I thought, how did this happen? I decided it was time to reassess what I was actually resisting, and to try a new approach.

Roz How do you unwind?

Gina Hiking in the woods, visiting the ocean, listening to live music. And of course, reading. There are also times when I collapse on the couch and give in to Netflix.

Roz What are you working on now?

Gina I am working on two novels-in-stories. One of the collections revolves around a particular restaurant in a small New Hampshire mill town. It explores economic and class issues, and consists of a cast of characters who thread a larger narrative about the way it’s possible to find and form surrogate families.

The other collection takes place in a coastal Massachusetts town, and is focused on the lives of a married couple who lose their only child in a tragic car accident just after he turns eighteen. It poses questions about parenthood and loss and perseverance, and it sifts through what ultimately sustains us during times when it seems that nothing will.

Roz Profound questions. Do they have working titles?

Gina The working title for the restaurant collection is called Then You Were Gone, and the other collection is called What Remains.

Roz Give me some amazing final words!

Gina I find that most of what I have learned about writing aligns with what I have learned about living. That being said, I think the most important trait for a writer is perseverance. Discipline is a close second, but it is essential that we are able to handle rejection. I tell my students that the difference between those who publish and those who don’t is the refusal to give up, and I deeply believe that.

You can tweet Gina @Troisi_Gina, find her on Facebook, Instagram and her website. The Angle of Flickering Light is published by Vine Leaves Press. Find it here.

If you’d like more writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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I wrote a trauma recovery memoir in lockdown – what now?

This email just arrived.

I have completed a manuscript about my childhood trauma and how it shaped my life, to tell my truth, to finally heal and put it behind me. I need to know if it is good enough to publish and am therefore seeking an editor who can proofread and correct mistakes.

Has any other year taken us so far into reflection and self-examination? These last few weeks I’ve had many emails like this.

So if you’re considering these questions, here are some answers.

You don’t need an editor yet

The first phase isn’t to look for an editor! Especially not a paid one. But you’re right to seek another opinion on the manuscript.

Beyond spelling, proofreading and publishable writing

You need to look at more than spelling mistakes and proofreading.

Here’s something that few people suspect unless they’ve had a memoir published. The manuscript that the writer completes, in those solitary, searching hours, is not usually ready for readers. This is not a question of spelling and polish. It’s about writercraft and your audience.

The writer’s draft, the reader’s draft

We write memoirs, initially, for ourselves. And that’s a considerable feat. We collect the material, get it straight in our minds and set on the page. Talk our soul through its troubles, tell it to the page. Bring order, maybe catharsis, closure.

For some, that journey may be enough – and has immense value in itself. But that’s not usually a version you can publish.

Not just about you

For a reader, the memoir is not just about you. It is a journey for them to understand the world through your unique experience. While they will respect your honesty and ordeals, and will want to be on your side, they’ll need help.

There is much your reader will find difficult to understand – people, behaviour, motivations. So they will need context – more than you realise.

They’ll also need more insight than your private memoir might have provided – insight about the other people, insight about you. Memoirs of this type have to navigate some of our most uncomfortable behaviour – when we were deluded, or scared, or cruel. When you write for yourself, you might not have to acknowledge all these dimensions, especially if you’ve been harshly wronged. But if you write for a reader – who is a stranger –  you often need a higher degree of wisdom about everybody’s muddles, imperfections and worries. You don’t necessarily need to forgive or redeem them. But you do need to understand them.

You

You also have to apply these principles to yourself. Although you’re the ‘I’ voice, the reader doesn’t know you. To them, you are a character in the story, so you must present yourself with the same care, context and insight as any other character, so the reader can know you. This might involve considerable self-examination.

Writercraft

As well as reaching this state of insight, a memoir also needs writercraft. Real life is sprawling and messy. It’s writing craft that will organise this sprawl in a way that will keep the reader engaged.

You need a structure, with a beginning, an end, and some turning points along the way. Although these ideas are more commonly discussed for fiction, they’re just as necessary for real-life stories because they’re essentially how you keep the reader’s curiosity, empathy and attention. Real life doesn’t, in real time, fit narrative paradigms, but you can stretch and condense passages so they form a narrative shape that is compelling.

Especially, consider the ending. Your experience, as lived by you, doesn’t have an ending, but the reader needs one. Where will you let them go? At what point have you given them a satisfying experience? Your book’s ending might be anywhere in the real chronology – in adulthood if the story happened to you as a child. Or you might prefer a more adventurous structure – beginning with the present, swinging backwards in time, then coming again to the present with new eyes. Time in real life is unreversible; in narratives it can do whatever you like.

Other points about structure

There’s also the pacing. Someone else’s pain can quickly become abstract and repetitive. Even the most sympathetic reader can become dulled unless you keep a sense of narrative progress. There’s more about this in my plot book.

How many characters?

You also might have to reorganise your characters. In your personal memoir, the version behind closed doors, you probably included absolutely everyone. But this might be too many characters for a reader to grasp.

Why is this a problem? It’s because the reader is not you. To you, each person is different and distinct, drawn into your story in their own ways. You know all of these intimately, because you lived it, but you don’t have the space to give all that context to the reader. So in a memoir, you usually need to trim your characters.

Also, you need to think about them as dramatic roles in your journey. You often need to combine several real people into one character who represents a force – a supporter, a mentor, an antagonist.

A further point. Can you write about these real people? Even if they’ve moved on from your life and you don’t see them face to face, the internet can keep everyone together. And publishing a book certainly can. You are only a tweet or an email away from anyone’s reaction. You might have to worry about libel, so you have to be very careful about what you say about a person who can be identified.

To answer the question: do you need an editor?

An editor is not what you need at the moment. What you should do now is more drafts.

Keep this one. It serves a valuable purpose in itself. Start a new version, the reader’s version. This time, look beyond your pain.

Look beyond yourself too. A memoir needs to understand everyone, or at least give them the chance to be understood. This applies also to you. There’ll be things you’ll wish you’d done differently, for good or bad. Your actions, reactions and protective behaviour. Understand yourself in those moments and those decisions. You will judge yourself a lot, but while you do that, also remember you’re human. And so is everyone else in your story.

Although you might not need an editor at this stage, you might benefit from a writing buddy who can look at the manuscript and explain where they don’t understand your thinking, where you’ve failed to give context. If you’re struggling to find a structure, they can also suggest where you turned a corner and didn’t realise. And even where you might end.

This might take many passes. That’s normal. I’ve been interviewing a few memoir writers recently on this blog and their books took years – to acquire the distance, the wisdom, the fullest appreciation. Find them here.

First, breathe. Then write a draft for the reader.

Thanks for the green shoot pic, Neal Herbert, Australian Dept of the Interior

If you’d like more writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Shades of the truth – talking memoir and fiction-writing with Scott Gould @Scott_Gould

  1. Embrace cliches
  2. Don’t write what you know.

That’s two pieces of writing advice you won’t see everywhere. They are from Scott Gould, award-winning short story writer and novelist. Scott has now crossed into memoir with Things That Crash, Things That Fly, which chronicles the startling and sudden break-up of his marriage. How was it, I wondered, turning the unsparing writer eye on your own character, your own actions, your own real people? We got together for a chat.  

Roz I’ll talk about your memoir in a minute, but first let’s discuss your other books. You have Whereabouts, a novel, and a set of linked stories Strangers To Temptation. There’s also The Hammerhead Chronicles, another novel coming later this year. What unifies your work – any themes, approaches, types of character?

Scott The first two are unified by time and place, both set in the US South and in the early 1970s. Why the early 70s? That’s when I was 12 or so (yes, Roz, I’m old) I was deeply affected by coming of age in that period of time. I remember so much from that era—the music, the social and political unrest, the crushes and the slow dances with the girls who were the object of aforementioned crushes—and that place…the humid, rural, silly and proud South. (Proud for a lot of the wrong reasons, I might add.)

Hammerhead is still set in the South, but it’s contemporary. I think I’ve mined my 1970s dry.

I guess what unites those books is my desire to look at a world and its flawed characters (flawed physically or emotionally or spiritually) and see how they navigate their own tiny spaces in that world. I like following them around and seeing if they can clean up and survive the messes they make. (That’s close to a theft from Faulkner; I think he said something about following his characters around. Sorry. But like Picasso said, “All art is theft.”)

I like taking clichés and stereotypes—like the Southern pick-up-mobile-home-hound-dog—and flipping them on their ear. I’m not one of these people who despise clichés. I actually love them because they give me something to experiment with.

Roz What an interesting way to think about cliches. Yes, I get that. All cliches start from a truth, a recognisable and resonant truth. Before an idea becomes a cliché, it is briefly the wisest thing in the world.

Scott Clichés exist because people have developed this universal idea of what something means. If I can flip it or etch a new aspect onto it, then I’ve made something entertaining. I think that will be real apparent with Hammerhead. There’s some wild stuff going on in that novel, lots of cliché spinning.

Roz So: your memoir, Things That Crash, Things That Fly. How was the transition to writing about your own life?

Scott It wasn’t a transition as much as a flipping back and forth over the years. And a great deal of my fiction is autobiographical. You can really see that in Strangers to Temptation. But I believe all fiction is based in some shade of the truth. Even if you’re writing about some fantasy world or some post-apocalyptic nightmare, and let’s say a character who limps and you want to describe that limp to the reader, and you suddenly think: “Hey, my uncle Jake used to have a limp. I’ll describe the way he walks.” That’s reality blended into fiction.

Roz I think it goes beyond small details. To make a story real, we draw on our experience of behaviour, personalities, emotions, relationships. The characters we most want to write are the people we want to understand.

Scott I always tell my students, “Don’t write what you know. Write what you know well enough to lie about.” That’s a mantra for my fiction writing. So I didn’t just turn off the fiction spout and start writing the memoir. The two are related, don’t you think? First cousins maybe.

Roz Indeed I do. When I published a collection of personal essays (Not Quite Lost), I realised they were the origin stories for my fiction.

Scott I had been thinking about writing the memoir for years—not right after I was separated and divorced, but a couple years after that, I started thinking: “I need to write this down. It’s got all the elements of a good story. Loss and desire, a fall and a redemption of sorts, darkness and light, tragedy and humor. Lots of interesting juxtapositions.”

Plus, I needed to do it for my heart. It was somewhat stitched back together, but the stitches were getting frayed. I remember thinking that if I could write it down and make it into a piece of art, I might come to some new understanding that would be healthy and healing. That was probably a foolish idea, but art has erupted from sillier beginnings.

Anyway, I think the book really took flight (pun intended) when I was awarded the teaching fellowship to go back to Italy and research a WWII pilot who was killed. I recall making a late-night, probably bourbon-fueled deal with myself: “If you get this fellowship and go back there and put yourself through that gauntlet of memory and anxiety, you better damn well get a book out of it.” Well, I did win the fellowship and I kept my promise to myself.

But I wasn’t writing the memoir steady, from start to finish. I would write some, then put it away, because it was too damn hard to face sometimes. Then I would get mad at myself and pull it back out and arm-wrestle with it again.

In the meantime, I was writing stories, and sending them out and trying to work on novel manuscripts. I guess I’m a juggler. I like to have a lot of things in the air. I was constantly in transition between fiction and the memoir. And that may have not been a bad thing. I wanted the memoir to have a definite arc to it, so maybe working on stories simultaneously was good for maintaining the idea of a narrative.

Actually, I’ve never really thought about that connection between the two. Thanks, Roz…

Roz The subject material is frank and honest. And very involving. I shared your certainty that the relationship could be salvaged, the many moments of surreal awkwardness, the sense of inevitability and disappointment. Were there many drafts before you reached this one?

Scott For better or worse, I’ve never had an issue or problem with writing extremely honestly about myself. In the Prologue to Things That Crash, Things That Fly, when I say, “I will tell you anything you want to know,” I really mean it. I think it’s the duty of any writer to be brutally honest with the reader. As a writer you’re trying to bridge the gap between your words and the reader’s emotions. And if you don’t develop some sort of trust with the reader, you’re doomed to fail.

Roz It’s the honesty that creates the relationship with the reader, which makes the narrative feel like a special encounter.

Scott And you achieve a level of trust by delivering information to the reader in a crafted way. Your use of specific detail, handling of point of view and narrative stance, characterizations…all of these craft elements (and many more) web together to make this comfortable, honest, safe place for the reader to exist. And that place is the story you are trying to tell. God, is this making sense? I feel like I’m blathering.

Roz Not blathering at all. This is a good definition of the power of prose – inviting the reader into your emotional sensations.

Scott I remember the early drafts of the memoir possessed the wrong tone. It was too whiny and too mean-spirited. And I knew it. But I still existed too close to the story. That’s why I needed some years between first and final draft. I needed to find the correct emotional connection between me and story, one that the reader would understand and allow.

Roz When I’ve helped writers with memoirs, they’ve often needed quite a bit of midwifery, coaxing them to look more deeply, to excavate further. Sometimes to forgive themselves.

Scott I always tell my students, when you’re writing a personal essay or a memoir, you are a character in the piece. There’s a difference between the ‘I’ that writes the story and the ‘I’ that lives within it. Put the ego and the fear and the anxiety aside, and treat that person in the story like any other character in a piece of writing. Tell the readers exactly what they need to know about that character.

If you can create separation between I-the-Writer and I-the-Character, it helps with the level of honesty, I think.

Roz Inevitably, a memoir has to involve other people who are also in vulnerable situations, in this case your daughters and ex-wife.

Scott I resisted for many drafts pulling them into the story. I suppose that was because they had already lived through the trauma and I didn’t want their characters to go through it again. I know, very weird and probably therapy-worthy. But a very well-known writer, who picked this memoir as a runner-up in a book contest, told me I needed more of my daughters in the story to make it work. So I dialed up their presence slightly, but carefully.

Roz I liked your delicate approach – they aren’t named and they’re seen mainly in glimpses. But it was enough. What lines did you draw about how you’d involve them?

Scott I was very selective in the scenes they appeared and very precise (I hope) in the way I used their appearances.

Roz Did they see the manuscript?

Scott They’ve known about the book for years, but they haven’t read the manuscript. Actually, as I write this, I’ve just mailed them copies. I’m a little anxious about that.

Roz I also thought the book ended in just the right place.

Scott Endings are always hard, right?

Roz They’re hard enough with fiction. Even harder with non-fiction. Life doesn’t just turn off. You could keep going for ever.

Scott I tend to adhere to something I heard the novelist John Irving say. He said that when he begins a novel, he always knows the last line. It gives him a compass heading as he navigates the twists and turns of the narrative. So when I began this, I knew I wanted to stop when I returned from Italy. I wanted that bit of homecoming, and I wanted my daughters there. That seemed like an logical emotional destination. Of course, the epilogue gave me the opportunity to expand the ending slightly and tie up some loose narrative threads. But for all intents and purposes, the story ends when I arrive back home after the Italy journey. That felt right, felt like the narrative circle was closed.

For a long time, the structure was wrong. I kept experimenting. I had an agent who wanted me to do some weird time-warp, Quentin Tarantino thing with it. And one agent who turned me down suggested I rewrite the book as a novel. (It was a disaster.) A hugely important moment for me was when I read this amazing memoir by Sonja Livingston called Ghostbread. It’s told in very short chapters. I was captivated by that idea of a very staccato rhythm. I thought, I can do that. I can break my story into tiny fragments, all of which add up to the total emotional experience of the story. And that’s what I did.

Roz You have three titles releasing within a short time – Whereabouts was last October, Things That Crash is this month and The Hammerhead Chronicles is coming soon. Was that deliberate?

Scott Whereabouts appeared last October from Koehler Books, this memoir in March from Vine Leaves Press. The novel that was supposed to come out in June from the University of North Georgia Press, The Hammerhead Chronicles, has been moved to February 1, 2022. (They want to wait until the pandemic is over so we can visit bookstores and stuff.) And I just found out I won a short fiction contest sponsored by Springer Mountain Press, and that collection of stories, Idiot Men, will come out this August.

Roz Wow, you can’t be stopped.

Scott It’s kind of strange and wonderful that all of this is happening at once. I don’t have any explanation for it. I’ve been grinding for a lot of years with nice, but modest results—stories in wonderful literary magazines and anthologies—but nothing on the book front. Then I hit my early 60s and the floodgates opened.

Some of these manuscripts had some age on them and I rewrote. Some were new.

I don’t really worry about publication. I love seeing my work in print, but I don’t set out with the goal of publication. I enjoy the process and I enjoy practising my craft. I enjoy taking a tiny speck of an idea and turning it into a fully-developed story.

I don’t mean that I love writing. Writing is hard and soul-crushing and exhausting…but, man, when you get it right, when you work the process and the craft takes over and you create a story when one didn’t previously exist? That’s a good day.

 Roz It makes it all the soul-mining worthwhile. So how did you come to each of your publishers?

Scott I had writer friends who published with them or I researched them on my own or I read a book and said, “This is really good. Who’s the publisher?” I kept my eyes open and did my due diligence.

 Roz Do you have a literary agent?

Scott No. I’ve had an agent at various times, and it never amounted to anything.

Roz Same here. I’ve had two. Each time, it was a confidence boost, and I felt I’d made the grade, but I didn’t fit the markets they sold to.

Scott I’m sure agents are wonderful and necessary for a certain type of writer…but I don’t seem to fall into that category, which is fine. The world is a big place and there’s plenty of room for everybody.

Roz Do you have any tips for submitting to literary journals? Has being published by them helped you get deals for longform work?

Scott A writer friend told me that if you aren’t getting rejected twice a day, you aren’t doing your job. I took that to heart. I submit relentlessly, realizing that I’m going to get hammered with rejections. I don’t take it personally. When a story is rejected, it doesn’t bother me if I know the same story is out to another eight or nine magazines. I’m a grinder. I put my head down and keep moving forward.

Roz Was your family creative and artistic or did you create your own path?

Scott Growing up, my family wasn’t super artistic, but my mother was an avid reader and insisted we always have a book in our hand. (I remember in the sixth grade, my parents let me stay up all night, one a school night, reading Robinson Crusoe, cover to cover.) So I was always interested in books and stories and language, which led to me being an English major in college (when I realized my basketball career was over and I wouldn’t be the next Larry Bird). In college I took a couple of creative writing courses and I was doomed to start chasing stories.

Roz Have I remembered this right… during Things That Crash, you were working in advertising. Was that useful in your creative writing, or even a welcome antidote?

Scott I took a too-long foray into the advertising business. Being a copywriter taught me how to be clear and concise and fast. But I eventually had to get out and return to teaching and writing stories. I thought, If I have to think up another clever, 75-word way to convince somebody to open a free checking account, I’ll jam this pen in my hand. I think some of the precision in my language comes from those years in copywriting.

Roz You teach creative writing. What level/age group?

Scott For the past 17 years, I’ve been teaching creative writing at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities, one of the nation’s only public, residential high schools for the arts. I teach creative nonfiction to high school juniors and seniors (usually 16-18 years old), and they are amazing. They have such energy and such seriousness of purpose.

Roz I want to linger on that phrase: ‘energy and seriousness of purpose’. Creative people never lose it. This is why I love them.

Scott I love talking with them about images and structure and intent and craft. Some of them continue their writing careers. Some don’t. But they ALL leave with an appreciation for language and the power it contains.

Roz The arts are something we never truly master. Even if we are teachers ourselves, there’s always more to learn. Where do you do most of your learning?

Scott I’ve been writing for a long time, Roz, and every day I wake up and realize I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. And I consider that a good thing. You see, as writers, we’re always apprentices, and if I ever get to the point where I think I’ve got it all figured out, I hope somebody is standing nearby who can slap me back into reality.

 Roz Give me some amazing final words!

Scott You will never figure out the perfect way tell a story or build a character or construct a scene, because the world around you constantly shifts, constantly brings new factors into the narrative equation. The important thing is that you always try. Sit in the chair, respect your craft, chase the language around the page and do the best you can. Keep grinding.

Find Scott on Facebook Twitter @Scott_Gould and his website. Things That Crash, Things That Fly is published on 10 March 2021 by Vine Leaves Press but you can grab a copy right now.  

If you’d like more writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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How to write a memoir about difficult times

I’ve had this question from Julia.

I would like to write a nonfictional account of my experience as a caregiver of my 80-year-old mum during lockdown. I’ve never done any creative writing. Where do I start? A diary, a memoir? I’ve been through a lot of struggle and want to put that on paper. Maybe someday I will publish it to share my experience with people facing the same difficulties.

First, Julia, capture the raw material. Start with a diary. Write it as often as possible, before you make any decisions about what to do with it.

How to write the diary

You might be self-conscious to begin with. You might worry about who will read it and what they’ll get from it. Forget that for now.

You won’t publish this diary. It’s notes that you will eventually use to create a book. So for now, it’s you and your thoughts, talking privately to a page or a recording app – whatever is comfortable.

Keep it simple. Just write what you did today. Then write whether that was usual or unusual, and how. If it’s usual, for how long has it been usual? Write how that made you feel, what was difficult and what was a pleasure, and why. Write what you think tomorrow will be like. Or next week. Write your hopes and pleasures and fears.

Do this every day, or as often as you can.

Don’t edit

Don’t worry about repeating yourself. Don’t try to edit as you go. You’re not trying to write the proper book yet. That’s a separate job for later. Just capture vivid moments, hours, days, weeks, in all their honesty. But you probably won’t repeat yourself as much as you think. Even if the events are largely the same, your thoughts and insight will evolve. You will also become better at sharing deeply.

Add context

When you’re comfortable with this, start to include other material that will be meaningful for a reader. Context that lets us know who you are, where you’re coming from, how this is changing your life and changing you. At some point, write what you were doing five years ago, 10 years ago, one year ago. Anything that feels significant.

Don’t delete

This will be an emotional document. You might regret things you wrote in earlier pages. If so, do not delete them.

This is an essential part of your growth. It is the truth of the situation you seek to share. You’re not trying to be a perfect person; you’re aiming to be an honest human who is sometimes angry or self-indulgent or wrong or foolish. So if you find yourself disappointed about earlier writings, examine that disappointment, and what you would now do or think differently. Recognise also that you are likely to change your mind again.

Start planning the book

After a while, you’ll notice patterns and themes. Continue to write your daily accounts, but start a separate textfile or notebook. You’re now ready to think about the big picture. How you’ll use your diaries to create a book that can connect with others.

Certain material in the diary won’t be relevant. Also, you’ll need to add. But remember, a memoir isn’t your whole life; it’s usually the story of a specific struggle. You might have many memoirs in you. What is the focus of this one?

We are made of many memoirs

At the same time, this focus might be more complex and far-reaching than you initially thought – this situation might force you to grapple with other problems and issues. Or you might want to include material about other significant people – perhaps your mother herself. Write notes to experiment with these ideas. See what seems a natural fit.

Also, look for what makes your story unique. Although you are writing about a situation that others also find themselves in, yours will have a unique impact on you, and you will have a unique way of handling it.

From my interview with Peter Selgin, author of The Inventors

Other aspects to consider

You need to be objective, honest and fair, which is hard – see this interview with Peter Selgin.

Two more links on gathering material and shaping it for others to read. My radio show with Peter Snell. Also this post about the writing of Not Quite Lost (a much happier subject, but it started with private diaries).

More on choosing what to focus on, the idea that our lives contain many stories – how fiction writers adapt to memoir.

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips like this. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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