Posts Tagged Vine Leaves Press
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.
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.
How do you make a life as a writer? John McCaffrey’s stories, essays and book reviews appear regularly in literary journals, newspapers and anthologies. He’s had a novel and several short story collections published (his latest, Automatically Hip, was released this month) and he teaches creative writing at college level. Where did this all start? How do you create a life path like this?
John, when did you start calling yourself a writer?
I love this question. It’s something I often say to emerging writers about taking that next step in their process, the importance of owning they are a writer by voicing it – ‘I am a writer!’
I feel that many writers, at all experience levels, can be shy or reticent to share with others about this pursuit. Perhaps the reason is fear of ridicule (‘are you one of those artist types?’), or condemnation for doing something that might not be monetarily beneficial (‘why don’t you get a real job?’). But if you are writing, and especially if you are serious about writing, then you are a writer. And standing up for your writing helps solidify it in your life.
And when did it happen for you?
After completing my MA program at City College of New York, and publishing my first story, Words, in Fiction Magazine. Before, I had always couched my writing in deprecation when asked, but I decided then I was making light of real accomplishments and harming my true self.
Where did your creative urge come from?
The dramatic answer is survival. But it might also be the true answer. When I am feeling creative, I feel the most alive, the most healthy, the most positive, and the most forward thinking. And when I don’t feel creative, or am not creating, I feel as if I’m existing. And that’s not bad. Living in itself is a wonderful thing, and I’m grateful for every breath. It’s just that I’m more grateful, and have a greater capacity to be grateful, when I’m being creative.
Were any of your family writers or other kinds of artist?
While I’m the only writer in the family, I’d say we’re an artistic group – my mother and sister are excellent at sketching and painting, and my father was a good storyteller.
Have you done jobs that aren’t connected with creativity?
I have been very lucky, these past few decades, to have worked as a development director for a nonprofit organization. A major component of this job is grant writing, which while different from creative writing, still demands originality and craft.
Is there any crossover?
I think the discipline needed to write grants, to keep to form, be precise in detail, and, basically, get to the point, has helped me develop a better prose style.
What was your publishing journey?
As mentioned before, my first published short story appeared in Fiction Magazine, which was headed by Mark Mirsky, a talented professor at City College of New York and a noted author. With that as a touchstone, I kept writing short stories for years, and was grateful to have almost all of them published in literary journals and anthologies. The story in Fiction, for example, was selected for Flash Fiction Forward, published by Norton & Co.
I then decided to challenge myself by writing a novel, and worked for a few years to create The Book of Ash, which was published by an independent press. After this success, I went back to my trove of short stories, and began organizing them into collections. And with great fortune, Vine Leaves Press chose to publish these works – Two Syllable Men, What’s Wrong With this Picture? and Automatically Hip.
You have an MA in creative writing. What did that change?
Being accepted into the MA program at City College was monumental for me. I graduated from Villanova University some years before and was working full time, but I knew I wanted to immerse in writing and knew I needed help to do so. From the start, I loved City and the students and professors.
It felt right?
Being in that environment felt right, that I was where I should be. I was able to learn from professors and peers, learned to read and critique work, was exposed to literary classics in a more nuanced way, and made lasting connections that have helped me in my publishing pursuits.
You now teach creative writing. How did that start?
About 15 years ago, believing I now had something to say that was valuable to writers, I signed on to teach a continuing education. Like my experience at City College, it felt right, from the start. I love to talk writing, hear work, laugh and joke and get to know rising writers on a deeper level.
Next, thanks to a friend, I began teaching writing classes at a senior center in Queens for LGBTQ individuals. Then I had the opportunity to teach at college level – first at The College of New Rochelle’s Rosa Parks Campus in Harlem, and then at Sacred Heart University and the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Helping people connect with their creativity and become better writers feeds my own soul.
What do you think can be taught and what can’t?
I’d say the biggest thing that can’t be taught to writers is commitment to the craft – the desire to be a better writer.
That’s a great answer – so true! In all the times I’ve asked this question, I’ve never heard that!
I believe you can help unblock people who may be in a rut with their writing, or help them better organize so they write more, or give them a starting point to move forward and finish projects. But you can’t put in them that drive, or need, to keep going and keep going and keep going, which is the basis for success.
You write short and longform… how do you choose which treatment an idea deserves?
It’s more intention than inspiration. When I first started writing with determination, I was interested in writing short stories, so all new ideas I had were funneled into that form. But as I matured, finished a novel, wrote plays and essays, there was a switch in process. Today, I pick a form I want to take on, say a novella, and wait for the idea to fill the vessel.
Do you have a writing process?
I usually write each day, but not at any set time or amount of time. What I try to do is have both short and long-term projects going at once. Say I’m tasked with writing a book review, I work on that at one point of the day, and if I’m at the same time working on a book, that’s done in a separate sitting. In this way, I am keeping my writing muscle strong while getting different rewards from the work. I also try to keep wordcount goals. One summer, I stuck to writing 250 words a day, every day – no more, no less. And yes, I am OCD.
Tell me about Automatically Hip. The cover has a kooky vintage vibe… and a lizard head, elephant head, a man in a suit and bowler hat, and music. What should it tell me about the book?
Jessica Bell, the multi-talented publisher of Vine Leaves Press, gave me a gift with her cover design for Automatically Hip. The image is a take from one of the stories, Grooved Pavement, about a man who only paints pictures of an elephant wearing a bowler. I think this image represents this book well, as many of the stories are a bit surreal, hopefully funny, and meant to pique the curiosity of the reader…any maybe bring bowlers back in fashion.
Tell me about your other short story collections.
Two Syllable Men, the first collection published by Vine Leaves Press, is about, surprise, men. Each story is a different man’s name (two syllables of course), who are the main characters. I wrote many of these pieces after a painful divorce, so the themes are relationships and loss, healing and finding new love.
What’s Wrong With This Picture? was next. These stories are more about the insanity of modernity, or the madness in the mundane. And now we have Automatically Hip, which might be a mix of both.
And your novel, The Book of Ash…
It’s comedic sci-fi, influenced by 1984 and also Fight Club. It was inspired by 9/11. I was living and working near the World Trade Center at the time of the attacks, and like many was trying to make sense of human cruelty. So I created a dystopian world set in a not-so-distant future that might, I’m scared to say, be actually approaching.
There can’t be a dystopia writer who doesn’t have that same ‘what-have-I-done’ feeling. We write it down and it starts to come true. Let’s return to positive vibes. You’re involved in something called the Good Men Project – what’s that?
It’s a men-focused online magazine that publishes male perspectives that are inclusive and diverse. I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity for many years to pen a column for them, and with the help of an amazing editor, Kara Post-Kennedy, it’s been fun and rewarding.
What do you like to read?
I like all genres, but mostly I stick to classic mystery/thriller writers – Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, Ross MacDonald, Eric Ambler. But I’ll read or reread anything by Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway or George Orwell. My current favorite is Burt Weissbourd. He is a master story teller.
What do you wish I’d also asked?
Not a thing! Such a nuanced set of questions!
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.
‘I just keep making things’ – Melanie Faith @writer_faith on patience, fulfilment and the long game in art
How do you make a professional creative life? Melanie Faith is the person to ask. She’s adept in many written forms – poetry, flash fiction and longform. She’s also an expert on the teaching side with her work as a writing professor, editor and tutor. And her creative proficiency extends into the visual world – her photographs have been included in exhibitions and used on book covers. Now, over the past few months, she’s published a series of how-to guides for all these disciplines – so there’s loads I want to ask her.
First things first: where did this creative ethic come from? Her family, perhaps?
My family is working class, but they are all makers and creative problem solvers. There are dressmakers, toymakers, jewellery makers, masons and house builders, knitters, gardeners and cooks. They are resourceful in applying trial-and-error, working around obstacles and using whatever few materials they have to create something more than the sum of the parts. Their can-do practicality and inventiveness have influenced me for sure.
Personally, I’ve been encouraged over the years by writing teachers and professors and beta readers who gave thoughtful critiques. Also, my family and friends who asked how it was going and my parents for encouraging my goals. And by books I’ve read, and authors I’ve studied.
I try to run with all of the opportunities that I’ve been fortunate enough to have – like internet publishing and a university education.
How did you move beyond private dabblings to the point where you said, I am a writer, an artist, a poet, a photographer, a teacher?
What I love about the arts is that we can spend our whole lives practising, always discovering things about self and media and always seeking to improve.
I don’t have one big end goal; I have myriad little project ideas that I want to enjoy—some fall to the wayside, others stick but don’t create a splash, and others resonate with fellow writers. I just keep making things.
Did you study any of them formally?
Yes, I have a BA in English with a concentration in professional writing and an MFA in creative writing with a concentration in poetry. I loved the knowledge and writing practice I gained from both degrees. The years to focus on consistently making art for critique and forming community were priceless, too.
The cost was the only part I didn’t enjoy: even though I had academic scholarships and contributions from my parents and I worked part-time jobs during my education, I was still paying off lots of student loans for years on both degrees, which is a familiar story for many of the creative artists I know.
Have you done jobs that were unconnected to your creative work?
Like most writers and artists I know, I’ve had a variety of jobs over the years, including an early gig as a choir-music librarian. I worked in an attic-garret office, mostly on my own, alphabetising and cataloguing boxes of sheet music. It was a self-paced, methodical, time-to-think kind of job that replenished my introverted self. I took classes and had time to write before or after work.
Most of my other jobs were in various subjects and levels of education, such as teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) at summer camps.
You’ve recently published a trio of books on writing and publishing, all with Vine Leaves Press. Two are for writing teachers – Writing It Real: Creating an Online Creative-Writing Class for Fun and Profit, Writing It Real: Crafting a Reference Book that Sells. The other is From Promising to Published: A Multi-Genre, Insider’s Guide to the Publication Process , which has just been released. Why those books, and why now?
I wrote them to share what I have learned and to encourage fellow writers. For all writers and teachers, myself included, rejection is a realistic and discouraging part of the vocation, so if I can provide kind words and insights to keep other writers going, that is fulfilling.
Plus, the reflections were meaningful to write. I aimed to bring something personal to each topic as well as something that might inspire readers to apply the knowledge. I wrote the second and third books during the early days of quarantine, so the writing became a positive and wonderful escape in the grip of much confusion.
You’ve also written craft books on poetry and flash fiction, also from Vine Leaves Press. How did they come about?
For years, I had nudges of encouragement from students who’d suggest I should write craft books, but I didn’t feel confident about it. I remember sitting down to write what I thought would be a craft article to submit to a literary journal, and realised, Hmm, this might be something longer. I saved the file, worked on shorter projects, and then a week or two later, more and more ideas for a flash fiction craft book occurred to me.
Is there a common mistake writers make with these forms?
They send work to one or two editors or markets and, after rejection, think it’s unpublishable. But it’s very common to get persistent rejections before a yes; some of my favourite published work received eight, 10, 20 or more rejections. I encourage writers to keep submitting rejected work while writing new projects.
Also, taking classes and getting feedback from other writers or beta readers builds a community and gives writers more tools to revisit pieces with new skills that enliven and strengthen the work.
Also, it’s helpful to realise that not every piece of art we create needs to be published—some can be just for ourselves or just for fun or to develop our skills. As much as I’ve published, I have a bunch of work nobody else will ever read. They were projects that got me to the projects that did reach an audience. Patience and the long game are important in art.
And you’ve written a creative guide to photography for writers.
I don’t have any special training in photography (other than two or three online non-credit classes for fun). It took me decades to have the confidence to call myself a ‘photographer’, and that was after several publications of my photos.
I’ve always had a passion for photography, although not always the money to practise the art as much as I’d like. In many ways, I feel similarly alive and happy and intrigued when making a photograph as I do when writing.
The idea for the book was sparked when I wanted to teach a class that combined photography with writing. I looked for a class text that combined photography tips from a writer’s unique skillset and couldn’t find it. Something inside me lit up.I felt there was an audience for the book, because many writers I know have either dabbled in or studied photography, and also great cellphone and digital cameras have dropped in price and increased in quality, so more people can explore photography at their own price-point.
Tell me about your own photographic work. Your pictures have featured on book covers and in online exhibitions. How did that come about?
I submit a wide variety of photographic subjects (from abstract to nature and landscape to conceptual photography of people to still-life photos), and often I’m surprised at the pieces that make the cut and the others that don’t. Many times, I’ve read calls for submissions for thematic photos or exhibits or literary journals asking for art and decided to send work on a whim. About 75% of my photos are rejected. The acceptances, though, are well worth it. You never know what others will connect to, which is one of the marvellous things about art of any kind.
Make what you consider your best work, and then release it to see what others will make of it, without too many expectations.
On the other hand, my photographs that have gotten published or exhibited have had similar qualities: an unexpected angle, a very detailed or, conversely, a mysteriously blurred element, elements of characterization of a place or a person, sometimes a saturated or unique colour combination, and a wild card element, like unique subject matter.
As with my writing, I often follow my own ‘Hmmm, that’s interesting’ or ‘I want to know more about that idea’ moments.
You’ve combined the visual and the written arts in a set of prompt cards for writers, which you sell on Etsy. What gave you the idea to create those?
I love using prompts in my teaching and writing. I love the idea of a set of cards that writers can carry as a light, tactile object so that, while waiting for an appointment or at a park or on a lunch break, they can use slivers of time to make art in a low-key, self-directed, no-pressure way. As a freelance editor, writer, and teacher, my schedule is ever in flux, so I use tiny snippets of time to keep my writing process cooking.
Let’s talk about your own creative writing. You have a collection of poetry, This Passing Fever, 1918 Influenza Poems, which was also adapted for a music performance. And you have two chapbooks of poetry.
I wrote This Passing Fever several years before the Covid pandemic. At the time, like many people, I didn’t think we’d ever experience a pandemic ourselves. The collection follows the lives of several characters in a small town during the pandemic over a hundred years ago—some survive and some don’t. Many of the poems are persona poems and the POV shifts from poem to poem, back and forth between characters. It was a meaningful series of characters and time period to explore, even more meaningful to me now.
What are you working on at the moment? I believe there’s a disobedient novel in progress…
That’s so funny. Very true. During the first weeks of quarantine, I started a novel about two sculptors who are also teachers who met in grad school and reunite in 2018 as very different people. The story alternates POV and time periods in non-chronological order. I’ve taken the manuscript through two or three solid drafts so far, but there’s a lot more to explore and more creative editing to do. This summer, I look forward to delving back in, and also to working on more photographs and two poetry collections, one of which is set in the early 1960s.
But you’re already published as a novelist, with a Regency novella under a pseudonym, Lucy M Loxley.
I started the Regency novella during a fan-fiction exercise in 2015. I chose to write in the style of Jane Austen. I just kept writing to see where the story went, and then I had a novella, so I decided to see if it could be published. Happily, it was.
Why did you choose a different identity for that book?
It’s in a genre (romance) that is not my primary genre, and there is a tradition in romance for authors to take pseudonyms.
Why that name?
At the time of writing the novella, I was streaming a show called Mr Selfridge, and one of my favourite characters is Lady Mae Loxley. I love the double L alliteration, so I chose another name I like that has a strong L sound, Lucy, and combined them. The M middle initial is a wink to Mae and my real first name.
What have I forgotten to mention? I’m all awhirl with your creativity and I’m sure I’ve missed something.
These have been such excellent questions that inspired me to dig deep! Many thanks. I can’t think of anything you’ve forgotten.
Some quick-fire questions.
Writing or rewriting?
Writing for the discovery, but more time in rewriting than my younger self would have enjoyed.
Write in silence or listening to music?
Both, and it depends on the project. First drafts I usually create to music, but editing my work often requires at least some silence.
Five essential things in your writing space?
A profusion of pens in every hue imaginable, a postcard a writing friend took the time to snail-mail with a writing quote on it, a photo of my nieces (they are ever-growing and changing, and they inspire those qualities in me), my computer, my tactile writer’s notebook with a jumble of to-do lists and ideas/random thoughts as they monkey-mind around and before they disappear.
What would you buy for your writing space if money was no object?
A Leica camera. They are famous and pricey. It would be a very generous splurge that would be fun to create with! Where’s that money tree again?
Find Melanie’s most recent trio of writing books here Writing It Real: Creating an Online Creative-Writing Class for Fun and Profit, Writing It Real: Crafting a Reference Book that Sells, From Promising to Published: A Multi-Genre, Insider’s Guide to the Publication Process.
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.
Do you write shortform? I have two opportunities for you.
If your forte is piercingly, wincingly, blazingly short, the 50 Give or Take series from Vine Leaves Press wants your work. The editor is my friend Elaina Battista-Parsons.
Does Elaina sound familiar? You’re right. She came to my blog to talk about her memoir Italian Bones In The Snow.
If 50 words is too tight and you like to be thoughtful at greater length, Elaina still wants your goodness. She’s also an editor at Cordelia Magazine.
Go here to her blog and follow the trails.
Elaina also invited me for a brief chat about my writing, my favourite music, my favourite decade and advice for new writers. In the same post she featured the work of pop musicologist Quentin Harrison, and that’s an inspired pairing – Quentin has a series of books (Record Redux) on pop icons, explored through their songs, and I mainlined books on bands when I wrote my novel Ever Rest. We were destined to meet.
Jobs that give you time to be who you need to be: how I made my writing career – Ian M Rogers @iantheroge
How do you fund creative work if your natural niche is not a high earner? Ian Rogers is the guy to ask. He’s done a variety of odd jobs that allowed him headspace to write a series of mischievous pseudo self-help pamphlets and a full-length work of experimental fiction released last week, titled MFA Thesis Novel. Meanwhile, he exploits his word-fu to the full, editing academic papers and business texts, and teaching English as a foreign language. How creative people sustain their careers is a long-term interest of his – which led to his blog, But I Also Have a Day Job.
Ian, how did writing start for you?
A lot of writers start interviews like this one by saying they were writing passionately from a young age, and if you count a handful of elementary school stories and stick-figure comics, I guess I was too.
When I was young I gravitated more toward different forms of storytelling: acting out imaginary stories at recess, narrating into a tape recorder, making my younger brothers laugh.
Have you done other arts?
I did a lot of acting in high school, and for a while I dreamed of doing stand-up comedy, but I never took serious steps toward either. Around college, writing—and novels specifically—naturally emerged from that experimentation as the method of telling stories that was most accessible to me. It was the method I understood the best after nearly two decades of reading books.
Were your family in the arts?
If making ridiculous jokes around the dinner table counts as an art form, my family were experts. As far as the more traditional arts, though, not at all, and no one in my family understood how one made a career in that. My parents encouraged me to follow the path I wanted regardless of what it was. I think to my parents, saying I wanted to be a writer was the same as saying I wanted to be a plumber or investment banker—it was just one path out of many, and didn’t come with any connotations, positive or negative.
You have a blog titled But I Also Have a Day Job. It’s a situation most people working in the arts would recognise. How did this blog come about?
After I finished my creative writing master’s at the University of Nebraska I was processing a lot of mental overload about my next steps. I was working on the MFA Thesis Novel manuscript and trying to pitch an earlier novel based on my time living in Japan, and the easiest way to earn money during that time was an incredibly laid-back job in a greenhouse on the university’s agriculture campus. The job mostly consisted of filling pots and mixing chemicals while hanging out with cool international students, and when I finished in the afternoons I found myself with plenty of energy to come home and write—far more energy than I’d had as a grad student, where I was teaching classes, doing homework and attending department talks.
The Day Job blog grew out of this idea that having a mindless job that required very little energy and caused zero stress was the perfect way to earn bill-paying money when you’re primarily interested in doing your own creative work. The writing program I’d just finished was the exact opposite of that—it stressed that if you wanted to write you had to enter this cut-throat academic world where the competition for professor jobs was fierce and most opportunities came in the form of poorly paid adjunct positions with little job security. With the Day Job blog, I wanted to explore the possibility of finding different career paths, and the various ways writers and other creative people handle these very practical concerns.
Are all the interviewees writers?
I try to host a balance of writers and people working in other creative fields—for instance, Krissy Diggs, who’s an Instagram illustrator, Jeff Gill, who’s an animator and producer on the Netflix show Ask the Storybots, and Miranda Reeder, who writes, draws and programs visual novels.
Are there any useful generalisations you can make about creative careers?
One thing I’ve found is that while the specifics of different creative fields vary widely, the paths to building any kind of creative career involve a lot of uncertainty, a lot of working less-than-ideal jobs while you transition, a lot of networking, and a lot of night and weekend work.
I think a lot of writers make the mistake of only looking to other writers for career guidance, whereas there are plenty of other models they could be borrowing from. My hope is that by looking at these stories of how different creative people become successful, creative people in all fields can get ideas and inspiration about how to build their own careers.
What is your day job now?
In January I finished a second stint of teaching English in Japan—first elementary school, then at a university in Yokohama. Most of my income now comes from editing, writing coaching, and teaching private video lessons in English as a foreign language. It’s a good routine because I can set my own hours, I don’t have to answer to a boss, and most importantly, I can write in the morning while my mind is fresh.
Your website mentions you’ve done a lot of odd jobs. How successful were they for you?
The greenhouse job was probably the most successful in terms of freeing my mind and time for creative work, and I probably would have kept it if it hadn’t involved staying in Nebraska.
All of my other jobs came with one problem or another: before grad school I worked as a school secretary, but the pay was low, the workload neverending, and the environment toxic. For a while I graded standardized test essays online, but it got too monotonous. After that I picked up a job listing electronics for an online store, but I left after I discovered that the boss was breaking tax law and cheating employees out of overtime pay. I didn’t want to be associated with a work environment where other workers were being exploited.
Tell me about MFA Thesis Novel.
Much like Day Job, MFA Thesis Novel grew out of my grad school experiences in Nebraska. The novel I was workshopping was about life in Japan, a topic the other grad students knew nothing about, and it used a lot of experimental techniques I was drawn to after years of reading the 20th century modernist writers. No one around me was doing any of that, and the program was centred in more contemporary fiction, especially fiction with a rural bent. I still had a lot of craft-developing to do, but the people around me usually rejected the literary moves I was making rather than trying to understand them, which felt confusing and hurtful, but most of all, limiting.
In my grad school workshops we always talked about conflict, and it occurred to me that grad school itself was a perfect setting for conflict—work that didn’t fit the mould was being criticized, people were lonely in this strange, conservative university environment, and everyone was aiming for these high-paying tenure-track English jobs that were disappearing because universities weren’t funding them any more. MFA Thesis Novel naturally emerged from these conflicts, along with my love of campus comedies like Lucky Jim and Joseph Heller’s A Portrait of an Artist, As an Old Man, which merges narration and novels-within-the-novel in a way that’s both poignant and incredibly silly.
Why that title? It’s quite brave…
The title was inspired by a Broadway musical I’d seen a few years back called [title of show] in brackets. It’s a comedy musical about two guys trying to write a comedy musical, and the audience watches them bumble through the process. I loved the metafictional concept and wanted to play with that in MFA Thesis Novel, which is also about the writing process and finding your voice as an artist.
How long was your novel in progress?
Too long! I wrote the first draft over nine months while I was working in the greenhouse in Nebraska, then took two-plus years to revise it while I was working more mentally demanding jobs after moving back to New Hampshire. In the process of writing MFA Thesis Novel and the novel I’m working on now, I’ve realised how difficult it really is to make progress on a novel when you’re working a day job, commuting, and trying to build an online presence as a writer, not to mention making time for hobbies, family, and—wait for it—sleep.
Do you have an MFA yourself?
My creative writing degree is actually an MA (don’t tell anyone), though research and more than a few late-night grad student conversations have revealed that my experience was comparable to any number of the hundreds of MFA programs in the US. My own department was at a huge R1 school that prized research and had a lot of creative writing PhDs, as well as a lot of students in literature and composition and rhetoric, which led to its more academic bent.
Was it useful to you?
It was. Aside from the time to write and hone my craft, I learned a lot about the world of literary agents, publishing and small presses, which were largely a mystery. Equally important, though, were the connections and work experience, which launched me in a whole new direction after graduation. I did internships with the department literary journal and the university press, taught a year of freshman composition, got my first paid editing jobs, and took an amazing class about copyright law and how publishing contracts work. Plus, of course, the experience gave me a cool idea for a novel.
You also have a set of zines, The Erochikan Zines, which satirise how-to pamphlets and corporate culture. Are these a reaction to situations you’ve worked in?
The Erochikan zines satirise work, but they also shine a spotlight on basic human interactions that to me feel broken, like how passive-aggressive put-downs are considered socially acceptable, or how we subtly pressure one another away from making changes in our lives. I thought, what if there was an evil corporation intentionally teaching people how to act this way—how would they make these abhorrent behaviours seem attractive?
Does that indicate a rebellious streak in your soul?
Ha! ‘Rebellious’ is a word I usually associate with teenagers who cut class and carve their initials in bathroom stalls. I prefer to describe myself as someone who points out the absurdity in the world we all live in and isn’t afraid to speak the truth. I’ve always found satire to be extraordinarily powerful in how it can show us bigger truths about society in ways that have real entertainment value while also being more thoughtful than, say, sarcastic Twitter memes.
The name Erochikan comes from the Japanese words ero, a shortening of the English word “erotic,” and chikan, a pervert who gropes women on crowded subway trains.
The Japanese have a word for that? They think of everything.
Speaking of words, you’re an editor too, with a broad set of skills – academic papers and business materials as well as the more creative side of writing – and, of course, English as a foreign language. How did you get that spread of experience?
That greenhouse job I keep mentioning actually started as an editing job cleaning up agricultural research manuscripts written by second-language speakers from India. I knew nothing about farming, but it gave me a lot of experience both in line editing and in working with dense academic writing in specialised fields I didn’t have a background in. My boss was good about recommending me to his colleagues, and I picked up other gigs editing social science and architecture manuscripts. If clients like you, they tend to use you again and pass on your info, which helped bring in different kinds of jobs, especially ones that involve coaching or talking through ideas over Zoom. Transferring those skills to working with fiction writers felt natural because I could integrate my teaching background and my writing experience, so it’s been especially rewarding to work with fiction writers as they hone their craft.
Your novel contains autobiographical material. Would you ever write a memoir?
While I’ve read a few excellent memoirs that played with form and structure in ways I found fascinating, I doubt anyone wants to read about my childhood playing Sonic the Hedgehog and having sleepovers with my friends. Aside from traditional memoir, one of my goals is to turn But I Also Have a Day Job into a nonfiction book about how creative people build careers. The book would be part research, part my own experience, and part experiences of people I’ve interviewed—a road map to the creative life.
That sounds like an excellent idea. Okay, here are some quick-fire questions.
Wordcounts or not?
In my own writing? Hell no—solving one really different problem for me is more valuable than 10,000 mediocre words I’ll have to edit out later.
Travel or stay at home?
I’m constantly torn between both—when I lived in Japan I was in travel mode, but for now I gravitate more toward staying at home and getting work done.
Fast or slow reader?
Slow—I tend to pause and process ideas as I read.
How did you end up a complete expert on the George Michael song ‘Careless Whisper’?
I had a chance to join this cool podcast called Blanketing Covers with Danny Getz and Jon Trainor. Every episode they choose a song or artist and look at the dozens of artists across the world who’ve covered them. They gave me a few options, and ‘Careless Whisper’ jumped right out. I take guilty pleasure in all the soft rock songs that my mom would listen to on the radio in the early 90s, and I’ve given the protagonist of my new novel a similar fondness.
Oh wise editor, what’s a word you always mis-spell?
Disappointed, recommend—any word with two sets of letters that could be doubled.
There’s a lot more about writing technicalities 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.
‘All humans are alone… and weird’ – how I made my writing career by Elaina Battista-Parsons @BraveIrene77
Elaina Battista-Parsons says she likes to write about what makes her weird, or gives her chills, or makes her happy. Thus was born a collection of essays and verse that became a memoir, Italian Bones In The Snow. Here, she talks about everything that makes her, and her books.
Your Facebook name is Winterwriter Battista. Tell me what it means.
Battista is my maiden name, and I really love it. I always have. As a kid, I’d love crossing the three ts when I wrote in script. Winterwriter is for my absolute adoration of winter. It’s when I feel most creative, most alive, and most in tune with everything.
What do people call you?
Where did you get your urge to write?
It began in third grade when I wrote about a trip to the Poconos mountains with my family and our close friends. I won an award for that piece.
Were you surrounded by arty people as a child?
There are a ton of creative arteries running through both sides of my family—no writers that I know of, but seamstresses, painters, sculptors, instrumentalists. My mom is excellent with sewing fabrics and cooking. My dad is a mechanical tinkerer. I was exposed to music of all genres growing up, all the time. We had a set of huge speakers in the living room. So yes, literally—surrounded.
Looking at your Instagram, you are a dervish of creativity. There are lists of stuff that shouldn’t go together, but when viewed in your excited handwriting they somehow do. I quote: First loves, first lusts, bread, cemeteries.
I don’t accept that things ‘don’t go together’. You can always find the common ground between bread and lust, LOL. Also, it’s all very spiritual. I mean, isn’t bread spiritual to everyone? No?
How does your creativity work?
My creativity usually begins with a memory of a feeling or setting.
Do you have a method? How do you get from feeling to finished work?
I wish I had a method. Instead, each project takes on a new form of being constructed. Italian Bones In The Snow flew out of my hands in a month or two, I swear as if my female ancestors took hold of the keyboard. I was just their conduit. My newer project is a full-length memoir. This project requires checklists, interviews, and daily word count goals. Less cosmic. It’s going to take much, much longer to get right.
You describe yourself as a writer across genres. Tell me about that. What do you write?
I swore my debut would be a middle-grade novel. I have written two or three full-length middle-grade novels, now sleeping on my shelf. Nobody wanted them. They need work. Then the first book contract I signed was with Inked in Gray Press. My young adult novel is called Black Licorice, and it will be in the world hopefully in January of 2023.
I also write poetry. Perhaps a picture book is somewhere in me too.
Italian Bones In The Snow is a book of memoir shorts, isn’t it? Talk me through it.
With Italian Bones there was more freedom than with a full-length memoir or a novel. I thank Vine Leaves Press for being so open to a collection as striped and asymmetrical as this.
How did you find a through-line to pull it together?
It’s arranged sort of sequentially, and sort of topically. It was like no other I have written. I wrote it fast and furiously, as mentioned above. Like I had to get it on paper, or I’d bust. It started as a series of random essays and word play, and then Melanie Faith, one of the most talented editors on Earth, helped me to see the common threads and sections. It’s divided into four sections based on concept, and many of the essays end in poetry. This collection is very accessible to people who don’t have time to read larger novels. It’s a quick, but with a salty bite. There is some chronology. I write about things that have moulded me: relationships, books, family, my mastectomy, Madonna, and music. To name a few.
You also work as a reading coach for students with disabilities. How did that start?
I have a private tutoring business where I specialise in teaching children with dyslexia. I’ve been doing that since 2005. I used to work in public schools, but our lifestyle works better when I work from home.
What other jobs have you done?
I began teaching in 2001 and remained in school systems until 2017. I’m also a three-level Reiki practitioner, but I don’t do that regularly, especially since Covid.
Have any of those jobs helped form you as a writer?
Everything helps me as a writer. Reiki gives me clarity. Teaching gives me joy.
Do you have any writing qualifications such as an MFA?
I do not! But I enrol in as many writing courses and workshops as I can, and those that work with my lifestyle. I have two daughters who keep us very busy. Currently, I am taking a fantastic creative writing class with Kathy Curto, author of Not for Nothing, Glimpses into a Jersey Girlhood.
You’re creative writing editor of Cordelia magazine. Tell me about that role.
Yes! What a lovely group of young women who’ve created this space for pertinent articles, essays, and stories. I found them on Instagram, and I am so happy to be part of their very new literary magazine. The editor-in-chief sends me submissions. I review, mend, and submit them back to her for publication. I love, love literary magazines, particularly ones run and focused on marginalised voices. I can say the same about independent presses. What a supportive community.
You’ve had poems and essays published in various magazines. Do you have a method for finding publications that are a good match for your work?
Submittable and Instagram have been great resources for finding good fits. Growing up, I’d devour any brochure, magazine, or catalogue that arrived in our mailbox. Or any I saw in waiting rooms. I love the ‘publication’, so I enjoy having my work spread out around these wonderful places that are run by passionate people.
Any advice for writers who are submitting to magazines?
Don’t overthink your pieces. They’re meant to be shared, not hidden in the caverns of your laptop. Perfectionism is paralysing.
How would you describe your style? What are the fingerprints of Elaina’s work? Any constant themes and curiosities?
I like to write what I know about. My work is rich in imagery and sensory details. I like to write about what makes me weird. What scares me. What gives me chills. What makes me truly happy. Most of all, I write about things that can maybe inspire others to not feel alone or weird. Because all humans are. Both alone and weird.
What makes you weird. What makes you happy or scared. I want to linger in this answer. It’s a perfect description of the personal essay.
Okay, a quick one. Writing or rewriting?
Lennon or McCartney?
After watching Get Back for eight hours with my husband, I have a huge crush on John Lennon. What a stunning and beautiful spirit he was. But….without Paul, there’s no Beatles.
Cluttered desk or tidy desk?
You have a YA novel coming out soon -a different audience from Italian Bones and your short pieces. Did you have to adapt your usual approaches?
I wrote the YA novel first. I’ll be super transparent here. Fiction is significantly harder for me to get right. My editors at Inked in Gray are the reason it’s developed for me. I am a better fiction writer because of Dakota and Justine. Italian Bones was a totally fresh and new experience from that. I can’t compare any of the approaches. Like oil and water.
Why was YA the right decision for that book?
I began writing it to mourn and process the death of a dear friend. It took on a life of its own from there.
If you’d like help with your own writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my 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.
Alexis Paige is a writing professor with a string of impressive credits for her essays, memoirs and literary editing work, but her latest book, publishing in February, is subtitled How To Make A Messy Literary Life. I was intrigued. Here are all the questions.
Alexis, let’s begin by talking about your literary life as a whole. Your career has always been writing – local newspapers, public relations and a number of teaching roles in the writing world. However, you describe your early years as anything but stable – ‘a peripatetic childhood shaped by loss and dislocation’. Did commitment to writing come from constant change?
My career has indeed been committed to writing, but I don’t see that as a direct response to any instability I experienced as a child. Not because there isn’t a connection; rather, I feel too close to my own life to see it with any distance or clarity or conviction.
Combat pilots use this wonderful, tactile expression to describe flying at very low altitudes to avoid enemy detection: nap-of-the-earth. This is how I think of myself, as a speck lodged in the nap of my own life.
In any case, I don’t have a good sense of how others perceive me (does anyone?), but I feel more inner turmoil than I show. A student who read my first memoir— Not A Place On Any Map, vignettes of my childhood, adolescence, and 20s to early 30s—remarked that the book did not square with his image of me as an energetic, good-humoured professor, a ‘success story’. It shocked him to learn that I have struggled with depression and anxiety, with substance abuse and PTSD, and that my confidence and competence are tinged with a darker sensibility. As Walt Whitman writes in Song of Myself, ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’.
I think we all contain these multitudes. But still they take people by surprise. That could be a discussion in itself.
So what did that early life look like?
We moved around a lot: I was born in Chicago, my younger brother in Phoenix, and when my parents divorced in the early 1980s, my mother went to Texas, and my brother and I to live with our father in New Hampshire. I had plenty of stability in many respects; at the same time, my life seemed quite different from my peers who spent their lives in one house and one town.
Summers and holidays were in Texas with my mother, and later, Boston. By the time I was 10 I could navigate airports with a competence that made me resent being assigned a chaperone. By the time I was a teenager, I knew how to figure out any subway, rail, or bus system, and could drive an old standard transmission truck off-road in the mountains of New Hampshire. I had this feeling of always moving between worlds, each with different customs and codes. I was comfortable in both worlds, but always happiest sitting in the window seat to the next place.
When did you choose writing, how did you choose writing, and why did you stick with it?
Sometime in my latter high school and early college years. While I had always been a devoted reader, my early English teachers were pinched taskmasters, obsessed with sentence diagrams and grammar (for which I am not ungrateful, but that’s another sidebar). They weren’t writers; they were subject experts. Writing is a subject, sure, but it’s also an identity, a way of being, a way of thinking, a means of exploration, a way of making meaning of experience, a noun and a verb.
In my last year of high school, I took a course in journalism and one in women’s studies—and writing began to click for me in a new, exciting way. These teachers were artists themselves, and that meant something, though I’m not sure I understood that at the time. There was an exchange of recognition perhaps; the more they saw in me a writer, or a thinker, the more I saw it in myself.
Was your family artistic in any way?
One of my cousins is a sublime photographer, another a gifted dancer, one aunt a talented painter. My paternal grandmother played piano on the radio with her sister on vocals—everything from boogie-woogie to standards of the 1940s and 50s. My brother is a talented singer-songwriter and musician.
But more than artistic, I would describe my family as big readers and conversationalists. My dad, brother and I were our own little debating society. Extended family gatherings were rhetorical athletic events (my dad was one of 12 children, and I have approximately 40 first cousins), with everyone jabbing and sparring, making cases for this or that, spinning yarns, playing cards, and filling up rooms with smoke and laughter.
That’s wonderful. Do they have room for one more?
Let’s talk about your latest book – Work Hard, Not Smart: How To Make A Messy Literary Life. Why messy?
For me writing is a messy activity. In 25-plus years of doing it, it hasn’t gotten any easier, or tidier. You have ideas and images and gestures and space junk zooming around, and that’s before you even get into the chair. The writing hasn’t even started. The real writing happens when I yield this unwieldy consciousness to the writing itself. In his essay On Writing, William Stafford said it so much better: ‘A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.’
I recognise that well. I start with a compulsion and a muddle, which torments me until I’ve spilled it roughly onto the page. Then I feel calmer because I have it fixed, it can’t get away. Then I can question it properly, see what bothered me so much about it.
My new book is partly a reckoning with, or perhaps an ode to, this—the muck and slog of the act of writing itself. The book dives into some granular concerns of craft, which is why I settled on calling it a craft memoir. By messy, I suppose I mean it’s a thing one never quite gets right. I recently re-read Anna Karenina, and I thought to myself, once again, that it is the most exquisite, perfect work I’ve ever read. But Tolstoy was probably still fiddling with semicolons or dialogue tags or something long after it was published.
Work Hard, Not Smart is a craft memoir of my life both off and on the page (and in the classroom), with linked essays on everything from writing with and about mental illness and addiction, to writing about rape in the age of Me Too, to writing about race and incarceration.
Before I quit drinking at 30 (I’m in my mid-40s now), I got into a terrible drink-driving car accident in Houston that resulted in a protracted felony case and trial in which I was facing prison because a woman was injured in the crash. In the book, I spend a chapter puzzling out how to write this complex story for another book that I’ve been working on for a long time. The more I wrote about the experience, the less I wanted to write a merely personal story of redemption, or whatever. Not that there’s anything wrong with redemption. It’s just that I am more interested in writing about the racial dimension of my experience as a white person reckoning with America’s racist criminal justice system. This is a much larger story, one that remains beyond me, and its difficulty is what I discuss in the Ars Poetica chapter.
The book is also about the messy enterprise of becoming a writer, being a writer, over the long haul. This encompasses career and life choices, literary citizenship, careerism (or anti-careerism), and other vexing concerns like time, and how to get enough of it. Years ago, I asked the poet Charles Simic how I should go about becoming a writer. ‘First,’ he said, ‘you will need to get a job—any job—that pays money.’ I didn’t see it this way in the moment, but now I think it’s the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten.
It’s the advice we’d be most disappointed to hear, but we all learn its value.
You were recently diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). How did this change things for you?
My own mind suddenly felt less unsolvable. There was a name for it. There was a name I could quibble with, anyway. It became less a thing to resist and more a feature I could lean into. I was diagnosed when concepts like neurodivergence and neurodiversity were becoming more mainstream, and this helped a lot too. ADHD was simply a different way of being and thinking—one even with some creative advantages, like hyperfocus when interested, for example.
And how does one define ‘normal’, especially in creative people? We train ourselves to do things that require a high level of concentration, practice and persistence, we follow impulses that are mysterious to others and often inexplicable to ourselves… we make connections others do not…
The title of my book is an inversion of the cliché “work smart, not hard,” a nod to my own growing acceptance of ADHD as a kind of divergent-thinker magic. The book arose from this, which made me want to run out and tell other like-minded creatives what I wish I knew early in my writing life: that not all who wander all are lost. You can learn to rely on yourself, to go your own way, and to make a writing life that fits you. The essay form is especially elliptical, so having an elliptical thinking pattern is an advantage there too.
Meanwhile, what’s this picture of you with – gasp – travel writer Jon Krakauer?
For my 25th birthday, my dad took me to a Himalayan Foundation dinner in San Francisco. We had both read a lot of mountaineering books, including Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, which is a harrowing account of the 1996 Everest disaster, not to mention a timely polemic about the phenomenon of big mountain tourism.
I know it well! I read it several times while writing Ever Rest. If I open the pages, I fall into it again.
I love all of Krakauer’s work (he’s SO good with nouns!), and he was a speaker at the event. After the speeches and dinner, as things were winding down, Krakauer was suddenly free, and I saw my chance. I practically tackled the poor guy, but he was very gracious and kind and his eyes were dazzling—full of life. My father was ready to capture the moment on film.
Let’s talk about your first memoir – Not A Place On Any Map.
It’s a memoir in vignettes about my childhood and early 20s. This was the time when I moved around most, first with family, and then by choice. The locus of the book is also trauma itself, in particular, my first trip abroad, to Italy, where I was raped. My life thereafter spun out in painful, predictable ways. I reported the rape, nothing happened, I felt re-victimized, I drank, I drugged, and I stuffed down the assault (and others) to the deepest recesses I could find. The book is an attempt at mapping the spin out and what happens when it all comes back up.
Your website describes a few hair-raising escapades including a short spell in jail. Tell me about hellraiser Alexis. Is that a fair description? Are you still a hellraiser?
Hellraiser, I’ll take it! I do think it’s a fair description. I’m not as much an obvious hellraiser as I was in my 20s, I have more to protect and lose now. But I still have a rebellious disposition (even with myself), and I hope to be raising hell for a good many years to come.
Do you write fiction at all?
I haven’t written fiction, but I never say never. I read and teach a lot of fiction. The short story is one of my favourite forms. In my early years as a baby creative writer (a poet), I did publish a few poems. This occurred around the millennium, when publications were still print, largely, and mine are now long out of print now, thank god.
What are the hallmarks of an Alexis Paige piece in terms of concerns, curiosities and style?
I love this question, but I have no idea. I have no aptitude for this sort of self-appraisal.
I love this answer. We can’t always figure ourselves out – as you said earlier.
I’ve always been driven by an insatiable curiosity. A few years ago, I became so obsessed with underwater treasure hunting that I contemplated studying engineering at the college where I teach writing, not because I wanted to do any engineering, but because I wanted to better understand marine engineering so I could read more about it. For the last few years, I’ve been on a World War II tear that started with a book on Churchill. So, I have these interests that ostensibly have nothing, or little, to do with my field, but they’re all connected on some crazy loop that makes sense to me.
Your essays are published in several literary journals. You’ve also edited the journal Brevity. What does a journal editor do, aside from assessing submissions?
Allison K Williams just wrote this super helpful piece for Brevity about this very topic, so I want to second everything she says in this link.
I’ve worked as a journal editor at a few places—most recently at Brevity—and the role can be different at different places. At Brevity, most of my work was reading and rating submissions—sometimes offering commentary if I loved a piece or if I felt my rating could benefit from explication (this wasn’t feedback for the submitter, more part of an internal conversation about what we loved, liked, didn’t like, or had questions about). I didn’t work directly with writers on revisions; I believe that happened at a higher editorial level, but Brevity gets such incredible work, so many publishable riches, that most accepted work requires little editing. At other journals, the Stonecoast Literary Journal where I was the creative nonfiction editor during my MFA program, I not only read submissions and managed our wonderful readers, but I made publication decisions and worked with writers on revisions and edits.
Do you have any submission tips to offer authors?
Many writers send out tons of work to lots of places. I’m not opposed to this, but it’s not how I work. I don’t send out anything until I’m really done with it, probably to my own detriment. I have trouble turning loose of even one sentence. And I rarely submit simultaneously. I send out one piece at a time, to one place at a time, one that’s been carefully researched. With publishing, I’m either risk averse, or a serial monogamist.
What’s the most common reason for rejection?
I can only speak for my niche experience. Some rejections occur because the piece is not the right fit (eg it’s a piece of reportage submitted to a journal that doesn’t publish reportage), some are because it’s not the right timing (eg it’s wonderful, but we just published an essay about infidelity). Most rejections, in my experience, occur because the submission is unfinished, it needs work on a beginning or ending, it needs one thread tugged on a bit more, it needs to be edited, but it’s close. Maybe it’s good, really good, but not great. It’s so subjective, of course.
Tell me about your editing work, both as a freelance and for Vine Leaves Press.
I do some copy editing, but mostly developmental editing, both freelance and for Vine Leaves. At VLP, development editing is with a manuscript that has been accepted for publication, so it’s about refining the work and making it the best version of itself. Editing is so satisfying to me because it’s so much easier to see the issues and possibilities in work that’s not my own.
It certainly is. It also tunes up our own awareness. Speaking of your own work, what are you writing now?
I’m in flux. I’m on the book launch, but I’ve been tinkering with a couple of longform essays that detail the grief and fear of the last few years—not only life in a global pandemic, but also some personal griefs and fears. I had a hysterectomy a couple of years ago because of health problems, my husband had a serious injury and recovery last year; he shattered his arm. We lost two dogs. So, I want to work on those; whether they’re one-offs or part of a book of essays, I don’t know yet. I also need to finish another work-in-progress, my jail memoir, which I believe is close but needs one more revision.
Find Alexis sparsely on Twitter @lexissima , on Facebook and on her website. Find Work Hard, Not Smart: How To Make A Messy Literary Life here.
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 going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.