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WORDS FOR THE WEARY

Trying to write and publish our stories can be filled with doubt, frustration, and rejection. So I've invited successful authors to share their ups and downs, as well as their advice, to give you company and encouragement.

Words for the Weary

LeConté Dill, Back for the First Time

by Susan Henderson on January 29, 2018

I am so honored to introduce you to one of my personal heroes, Dr. LeConté Dill, who has something to say to those of you who feel beaten down by rejection or overlooked by the writing community. LeConté is a professor, a brilliant poet, and a powerful advocate for social justice, particularly in the area of public health.

After you read the letter she’s written to you, check out some of her poetry in berfrois and as part of the National Academy of Sciences’ Visualize Health Equity Project (I find this direct link easier). Or read this groundbreaking piece for the National Institutes of Health.

If you are a magazine editor or chapbook publisher and want to see some brilliant, important writing, or if you’re planning a local reading and want a vibrant speaker who will raise goosebumps on the arms in the audience, let me know and I’ll put you in touch.

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Dear You,

I’m approaching 40, and I feel like I’m back for the first time. When I was a college student in Atlanta, the rapper Ludacris put out his “first” commercial album, entitled “Back For The First Time,” because he has been a local radio personality and had already put out numerous mixtapes and a full-length album years before this commercial release. In a similar vein to Luda, I, too, have been honing my craft for a long time. Still, at times, perhaps like Luda in 2000, I feel ‘unseen.’ The invitation to even write this blog is a reminder that, nah, folks do indeed see me! So, I offer to YOU, I see you, too, Boo!

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Even if folks don’t seem to see you or don’t see you exactly as you want to be seen, write anyway! Write like a 1st grader filling time in the space between lunchtime and recess. Write like a 5th grader turning in a book report. Write like a 10th grader submitting to the high school lit magazine editors who meet to review submissions on Tuesdays at 2pm. Write like a college student with a minor in Creative Writing, navigating your way from the science labs to the social science libraries, looking for a major, but always having a home in the English Department. Write like you’re applying for your first writing workshop, first learning the leap-and-land routine that is this writing life. Write like you’re actually sitting in that writing workshop, surrounded by strangers who emerge as writing partners and wind up as dear friends. Write by building community—going to readings, even when you’re not the one reading, buy the books that will topple off your bookshelf, meet up for “writing dates” with your folks or even with just yourself and your pen. Take the writing classes, the webinars, the workshops—the free ones that you still contribute a donation, the ones that take sliding scale payments that you save up for, the pricey ones that you crowdfund. Teach the writing classes and workshops to young folks, to peers, to elders. Whether you call yourself a “Teacher” or not, just teach your work, share your practice, learn with the community of learners you’re gathering. Write like you saw your work in a major publication for the first time, and want to feel that warm feeling in your chest again and again. Take care of yourself when you get that “no,” that “thank you, but…,” that “we’re sorry, but we had an unexpectedly large amount of submissions this year.” Pout! Definitely pout! And engage in any selfcare and squadcare practices that you lean on… or that you’ve put on your to-do list to try out. And continue to write like you claim “writer” in your bio, in your intro, on your webpage. Write for your own page, whether you call them morning pages or evening pages, a gratitude journal or a blue day journal, the back of the light bill or the corner of a cocktail napkin.

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At least that’s been my journey since I was that 1st grader, finding my way from writing as a hobby to writing as praxis and writer as identity. This writing now feels urgent. This writing now feels hopeful. This writing now can hold bold urgency and hope together. I am urgently working to publish my poetry chapbook, and hopeful that it will enter the world this year. I am urgently working on an ethnographic book manuscript that also integrates biomythography, autoethnography, and poetry, and hopeful that it will thoughtfully articulate how young people of color across the U.S. activate resilience in their lives. I am urgently developing a poetry workshop/community intervention that will engage Black girls in Central Brooklyn in reading, analyzing, writing, and sharing poetry, and am hopeful that our emerging community will conjure strategies of resistance in our everyday lives. I am urgently remembering to play!, and hopeful that I’m actually back… for the first time.

Love,

LeConté

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LeConté Dill was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles and is creating a homeplace in Brooklyn with her husband Umberto. She is an alumna of Spelman College and holds graduate degrees in Public Health from UCLA and UC Berkeley. LeConté has participated in VONA Voices and Cave Canem workshops and was a 2016 Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop Fellow. She’s been published in literary journals, online magazines, and academic journals, such as Poetry Magazine, The Killens Review, Berfrois, The Feminist Wire, Very Smart Brothas, and Journal of Adolescent Research. Her creative writing, community work, and applied research focus on safety, healing, wellness, and justice, particularly for urban Black girls. Currently, LeConté is an Assistant Professor of Public Health at SUNY Downstate.

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Let’s Talk with Jamie Ford

by Susan Henderson on September 11, 2017

Jamie Ford is the author of three novels: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Songs of Willow Frost, and out tomorrow (I’m so excited!!), Love and Other Consolation Prizes. 

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Here’s a description of it…

1909, Seattle. For twelve-year-old Ernest Young, a charity student at a boarding school, the chance to go to the World’s Fair feels like a gift. But when he’s there amid the exotic exhibits, the half-Chinese orphan discovers that he will actually be a prize, raffled off to ‘a good home’. He is claimed as a servant by the flamboyant madam of a high-class brothel. There he forges new friendships and discovers a sense of family.

Jamie’s debut novel spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list and went on to win the 2010 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. His work has been translated into 34 languages. But, maybe more importantly, he’s a happily married father of six with a great sense of humor and a regular D&D habit.

Here is the one and only Jamie Ford with some writerly wisdom. Be sure to leave your messages for him in the comments section.

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Dear You,

Let’s talk. Because I’ve been where you are right now. Well, not literally, but figuratively. (Literally would be weird).

I’ve been that hopeful, aspiring writer, trying to figure it all out. And honestly, I’m still aspiring, still hopeful. And still trying to untie the Gordian Knot that is…writing.

You’d think that it would get easier with each book but it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s even harder.

So if that sounds a bit discouraging, perhaps you should consider the tradecraft of plumbing. Seriously, plumbers make great money and on certain frustrating writing days, sludging through other people’s sewage seems like a welcome respite.

Hmmm. You seem unconvinced? But you’re still reading this, so you must be somewhat determined. And if you have determination, then let’s keep going.

In general, I feel reluctant to dispense advice. Because, who knows, maybe I just got lucky? (Ah, can you sense my fading confidence already? That twitch in my swagger? We writers are a hopelessly insecure lot).

I sometimes avoid this type of pontification because I’m only on my third book. So come back in twenty years after I’ve published ten, including my magnum opus—a 1,200-page epic, written in second-person plural, which Publisher’s Weekly will rave about despite my not using commas, periods, paragraph breaks, or the letter Q.

But most of all, I shy away because what works for me may not work for you.

Nevertheless, here are some thoughts.

It’s okay to plink away

As a writer, I still give myself a healthy margin for self-improvement. You wouldn’t sit down at a piano for the first time and try to play Mozart, would you? Of course not. You’d play scales and work your way up. But so many first-time writers sit down and try to write an epic seven-book series, with twenty point-of-view characters, and when it doesn’t turn out well they shrug, “I guess I’m not a writer.”

It doesn’t work that way. Start small. Then kick off the training wheels when you feel the wind in your hair.

Stop scraping burnt toast

There’s a danger in being wedded to one idea, or rehashing the same idea over and over if it’s not working. Sometimes you just have to divorce yourself from a story or at least agree to explore a trial separation.

My path to publishing with Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was remarkably easy. But my time of longsuffering was spent on an un-publishable book that I just couldn’t let go of. I hung on for years.

So step away from that 300,000-word slipstream fantasy you began in the 8th grade. It’ll still be there, I promise. You’ll find more words, an inexhaustible supply.

Don’t wait for the short bus

The market for short fiction is theoretical these days—so don’t waste years of your life trying to pad your literary curriculum vitae with short fiction before jumping into longer forms. If you enjoy writing short fiction (I do), spin that yarn, but don’t hold up your career waiting on rejections from literary journals that pay you in contributor’s copies. Finishing an unpublished novel is a greater achievement than a short story published for free in Hog Caller’s Quarterly Review.

Write for the most important audience of all: yourself

Write stories that fill the void in your imagination first. By that, I mean write stories that answer your own questions. Don’t write for a market or target audience. Octavia Butler, who wrote science fiction, once said, “There are no black people in the future, therefore the future is a dangerous place.” Instead of writing to reflect the genre, she explored her own point of view, shattering the expectations of others.

Being a writer is easy. Writing is hard

As a student, I was once asked, “Which do you like more—writing, or the idea of being a writer?” It was, and is, a very delicate and powerful question. If you enjoy the process of writing, you’ll be fine. But if you romanticize the idea of being a writer, you should keep your day job, buy a Vespa, and hang out at Starbucks and brood a lot. You can enjoy all of the affectations without the struggle.

Avoid the beauty contest

We all have a favorite author that makes us go all drooly when we savor their work. Stop reading them, at least for a while. Doing so is like leafing through fashion magazines while trying to lose weight—they’ll only make you feel fat. Instead, go to a garage sale and spend 25¢ on three, random, out-of-print paperbacks and force yourself to read them. Pick them apart for all their flaws. Then you’ll be more apt to notice those same mistakes in your own writing.

Weaponize your weaknesses

As the great Pat Conroy once said, “the greatest gift a writer can ever receive is an unhappy childhood.” Pat is right. The things that scare us the most—the things that have caused us the most pain are actually our dormant superpowers. Write about them. Spend some of that emotional equity on the page. Give your weaknesses and insecurities to your characters. They’ll come alive. And you’ll sleep better.

And lastly…

If you can write, then write. But if you can’t, then do what I do.

Also, there’s always plumbing.

Jamie’s newest book, Love and Other Consolation Prizes, is available everywhere, but I know you’ll buy it from an indie bookstore. Please leave Jamie a comment here because it’s always nice to respond when someone writes you a letter. You can also visit him at www.jamieford.com

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Caroline Leavitt & The Sticky Subject of Success

by Susan Henderson on August 7, 2017

Talk to any successful writer and they will tell you stories of rejection and doubt, reading to empty rooms, and writing stories that tie themselves in knots. I wanted to bring those writers here to talk with you, and I could think of no one better to kick off my series, Words for the Weary, than Caroline Leavitt, who knows all about the highs and lows of being an author. She is, honestly, the most generous writer out there—an advocate for the unsung hero, a voice for writers without confidence or platforms.

Caroline is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow, Pictures of You, Girls In Trouble, Coming Back To Me, Living Other Lives, Into Thin Air, Family, Jealousies, Lifelines, Meeting Rozzy Halfway. She has appeared on The Today Show, The Diane Rehm Show, and has been a judge in both the Writers’ Voice Fiction Awards in New York City and the Midatlantic Arts Grants in Fiction. She teaches novel writing online at both Stanford University and UCLA Extension Writers Program, as well as working with writers privately.

But the resume never tells the full story. Here’s the one and only Caroline Leavitt with a letter that is just for you.

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Find this amazing novel on Amazon and IndieBound.

Dear You,

Most of the writers I know have had messy childhoods. We write to heal. to say I am, I Am, and hope someone else says, Me, too, Me, Too. We want to be known, and that leads to the sticky subject of being known all too well, which is (sigh) fame.

Why do we want it? Maybe to feel validated. To have enough money to pay our rent, and go out to dinner and have enough to quit that horrible 9 to 5 job where you are yelled at for not dressing coherently enough. (It happened.) We want enough notice so we can write another book, or be known enough to get reviewed in top places, to be noticed, and oh, okay, to feel important.

Every writer I know feels the sting of envy. Why did that writer get that review when I didn’t? That prize? That crowd in the bookstore? I compared and despaired. Did people not like my work? Or was it me? Nothing was ever enough, until a friend of mine asked me, would I be finally satisfied if I won the Pulitzer? I knew the answer.

I had early, dramatic success with my first novel, Meeting Rozzy Halfway and I mistakenly thought it would always be that way. I was flown to NYC and interviewed by Publisher’s Weekly and by TV and radio stations. I read and appeared everywhere and even had a movie deal. Then I wrote my second novel. My publisher went out of business and the novel tanked. I got a new publisher, and guess what? They went out of business, too.  Next I had a 3 book deal with a major publisher who wasn’t really interested in marketing or promotion, and I had enough sales only to buy my husband and I dinner at a fancy restaurant. I cried a lot. I was deeply ashamed.

I wasn’t successful. I knew it. My friends were getting prizes and important reviews and bookstores so filled that people had to wait outside. When people asked me what I did, I said, “I’m a writer?” with a questioning lilt to my voice because I wasn’t so sure, since success seemed so scarce.

I roamed the bookstores and looked at books and I couldn’t figure out, why was this bestseller better than my book? Why did friends of mine get the things I yearned for—and get them so easily? Was I doing something wrong?

I cried to my friends and they commiserated. I wrote a new novel that my agent loved, my writing friends loved—and my then publisher rejected on the grounds that it was “not special” enough. I knew then that I was finished. If you haven’t made money after 8 novels, and no one knows who you are, what publisher would take the risk of buying your new book? I couldn’t’ worry about success anymore because I was obviously a failure. But a writer friend of mine wouldn’t let me give up, and got my manuscript to her editor at Algonquin. I knew nothing would happen.

Until it did. They took that non-special book and put it into 6 printings months before publication. They turned it into a New York Times Bestseller its first month out.  I was suddenly sort of famous. The people who wouldn’t take my calls were now making them to me. I was asked for blurbs, asked for essays, feted.

But was I happy?

No, I was not. I was scared because I felt pressure to make the next book even better. What if I couldn’t? What if no one liked it? What if I grew less famous instead of more?

I was devastated by insecurity, I started trying to figure out the secret. I asked my editor a while ago about a writer who seemed to be getting everything on the planet and I couldn’t tell why because I had read the novel and thought it was, well…pleasant and light.  My editor shook her head.  “That writer is adorable,” she told me. “And also very well connected.”

Somehow, that made me feel better. Some writers are insanely good at making themselves adorable to the public, at gaining a following because they are handsome human beings, or they are part of a clique of writers who always go to the same coffee shop and order the same coconut latte. That’s not me, so I’m guessing it isn’t you, either.  You have to have time to hang out to be adorable and for those of us who are solitary souls, that isn’t going to happen.

It all felt so discouraging that I stopped writing altogether. “I don’t want to do this anymore,” I told a disbelieving writer friend. “And it feels like a relief.”  And for three months it was. I didn’t write, I didn’t think about writing, I didn’t care. Instead, I lived. I had fun with my husband, with my son, with my friends. I didn’t read book reviews, but read the books I wanted to read for pleasure, not comparison.

I began to realize from being a book critic that some books I adored were savaged by other critics, and books that I had some problems with were touted.  Then, to my surprise,  one day, I felt a story simmering inside me. It had to be heard. And so I listened, and I began to write, not thinking about anything but story. I became happy, immersed in my work. I hope the book will be read, but if it isn’t, then there’s a next one, and a next one after that.

Now, when I feel a flare of envy, I turn it into good karma. Someone gets a prize I wanted? I immediately warmly congratulate them. Someone gets a rave? I send flowers. I try more and more to help other writers any way I can. It actually knocks out any jealousy. It makes me feel like a better person, and it puts things into perspective, and truthfully, we are all swimming in the same sea, so why wouldn’t it make me happy if someone got attention?

I know now that career is a long road, not a short stop. Any writer might have a Pulitzer one time, and a book that barely sells the next. It doesn’t matter. What matters to me is the writing, being in that incredibly heady state when you are in the zone and you inhabit your characters so vividly, you swear you can feel them breathing beside you. It’s that necessity to create, that deep, abiding emotion that spurs you on. It’s not commerce. It’s making art. Hey, I still have green eyes, but they’re not filled with envy anymore.

Love, Caroline

Caroline Leavitt’s latest novel Cruel Beautiful World is out in paperback this August. Visit her at www.carolineleavitt.com

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