The Writing Life

Goodbye Ucross

Well, in about ten minutes, I’ll be heading to the airport.  My experience at Ucross has been wonderful.  The accommodations were perfectly suited to my needs and the food was excellent.  My co-colonists were an inspiring cluster of writers, visual artists, film makers and musicians.  Art was in the air and I breathed it all in.

The retreat lasted 28 days, but when you subtract the Thanksgiving holiday (and my birthday) let’s say it was 24 days.  Then I caught the flu, so that took it down to say, 21.  I got a lot done in those days.  By a lot I mean word count, but also I got a lot done in that I figured out some important questions having to do with my book.  I put a lot of new pages in, but I took a lot of pages out.  I’m leaving feeling satisfied, but also eager to keep working.

I think I have to face the fact that a novel takes on long time to write.  As much as I complain about NaNoWriMo, I understand the fantasy of having a book done by Christmas.  It’s what happens when you don’t want to write, as much as you want to have written.  This month out here in prairie has helped me remember what’s important, what I love about what I do.  Being out here has helped me here my own voice again.  So I am grateful. #blessed.

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Report From Ucross or Some Thoughts On Abundance

So I have spent my first week at Ucross, an artist colony in Wyoming.  I’ve only been here two days, but already I feel my spirits lifting.  I credit it to the overwhelming spirit of abundance that infuses everything here.

It starts with the landscape.  This is big sky country.  When I look out of the window of my studio early in the morning, I witness the miracle of a purple sunrise over a meadow that stretches as far as I can see. (If you looks closely at the photo you can see it peeking in the window.) This morning, I put on my puffy and sat out on my deck, sipped coffee and just tripped on the splendor.

The rest of the feeling of abundance comes from the colony itself.  In the past I have visited retreats that come with a long list of rules telling you what all you can’t do– more like a boarding school than a true retreat.  But when we arrived here at Ucross, the terrific staff first showed us around making sure we knew where to find the tea station that featured so many varieties that I was tempted to give up coffee and join the #teamtea.  And then we were told that we could take tea with us to our studio.  Take the whole box you want.  Same for coffee which was in it’s own cabinet, stuffed to the brim.  The even found an 1970s IBM typewriter for me to use! The vibe here is like this: tell us what you need to create.  My needs are modest, really.  A sunny room, a big desk, coffee, and cookies if you have them.  But what I see I also need is the feeling that there is enough of everything.  No need to ration.  That feeling of abundance has already influenced my work.

My challenge when I get home to learn to recreate the feeling of abundance.  How to feel that there is plenty and not worry about scraping the bottom.  I think the answer is going to have to be spiritual rather than material.  Because in the material world, there seldom is quite enough.  The in the spiritual realm, there is infinity.

 

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some thoughts on writing retreats

My deskAfter visiting half a dozen artists colonies and retreats, I have finally figured out what makes a successful retreat and what makes a for a dud.  Like romance, part of it is physical and the rest in in your head.  Let me explain.

I have been a guest at a whole range of retreats– from full service pamerfests like MacDowell (New Hampshire) where they bring you your lunch in a basket, to Gilbraltar Pointe Center (Toronto) that was a repurposed elementary school, to my recent stay at La Muse in Southern France.  I spent three weeks in Switzerland in 2004 in a set up that was kind of like The Real World, International Nerd Edition.  I’ve slept in a haunted mansion, I’ve written in a converted barn.  Sometimes I wrote like a maniac and other times I didn’t accomplish a gosh darn thing.  And finally, finally, I think I understand what went right and what went wrong.

The physical space matters:  I write best when I am in a tidy room with a lot of light.  I need a large desk to spread all my stuff out and I need a comfortable chair.  And I need not to feel cold.   I prefer to write in a different room than the one I sleep in.  So, basically, I know myself. I know what I like.  Things will go better if I’m comfortable.  When you get an acceptance to a colony, mention this to the people and they may be able to accommodate you.

The physical space matters even more when your head is not together.  There have been times in my life when the story was just bursting out of me.  I wrote sentences on napkins, I woke up in the middle of the night with ideas. (I wrote my first novel in a closet!)  When I am in The Zone, all I want from an artist colony is for people to leave me the hell alone so I can do my thing.  But when I am not already in a creative frenzy, when the story is not cooperating, I need the environment to woo my muse. I need the creative equivalent of candlelight and Luther Vandross.

The retreat should take up less energy than being at home.  Now THIS is the major issue. I have noticed that the fewer services a retreat provides, the more women tend to be in attendance.  I think this is because for a lot of women, just being away from their kids is a luxury.  (A good friend I met at a colony that I didn’t love, answered all my complaints with “have you noticed that my kids are not here? I’m golden!”) A retreat that is “self catering” (that means no food provided) is fine because because many women find cooking only to feed themselves to be such a treat.  I could go on and on, but you get the idea.  I was recently at a self-catering retreat in France and between the cooking, hanging my laundry on the line, fetching water from the spring, constantly keeping the fire lit and living in a communal situation, I was wiped out from effort of just staying alive.  In my real life, I live in New York, alone.  When I am hungry, there is take out.  There is drop off laundry service.  I have a writing room in my home with an excellent desk and chair.  Nobody has keys to this apartment but me. So, the retreat wasn’t so retreaty because it was so hectic.  But consider if I was on this retreat five years ago when I was used to working way more hours and I had a lot of personal obligations that were eating up my time.  I would have been delighted to live the “simple life” in southern France is it meant I could actually hear myself think, and I would have written up a storm.  You gotta a) know yourself and b) know what you’re getting into.

You have to push yourself even when the circumstances are not ideal.  This is not my strong suit.  I am capable of spending a lot of time and energy being mad.  I can get mad because my room is not up to par.  I can get mad because, over wine one of the colonist said something jaw-droppingly offensive. (Oh the stories I could tell! You wouldn’t believe it.)  But at the end of the retreat, if you don’t get anything done, only YOU suffer, so you must try and push through whatever isn’t working, just like in real life… but that doesn’t sound like much of a retreat, does it?

 

Tomorrow, I am heading to Ucross, a writers residency in Wyoming.  All my friends who have been insist that it is the pamperfest I have been waiting for.  The food has been described as “spectacular”.  The grounds “gorgeous.” I’m all packed and I think that I am in a good place in terms of being ready to write.  I don’t think I am at the phase where all I need to peace and quiet, but I won’t pitch a conniption about scratchy towels.

Watch this space.  I’ll report back with pictures and updates.  This next month is really the home stretch for the novel. I need to write “THE END” by Christmas.  I’ve let too much time slip away.  It’s time to do this thing.

 

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Greetings from La Muse in Labastide, France

For the next three weeks I am going to be living in the village of Labastide in southern France enjoying the La Muse artist’s retreat.  Although I have been to several artist’s residencies in the past, this is a new experience for me.  Here’s my report from my first few days.

To get to La Muse, I traveled by train from Paris.  The ride was about six hours total, and I had to change trains in the middle.  Trains in Europe are very comfortable– especially the ride from from Paris to Bordeaux.  Even the sandwiches in the cafe car were delicious.  I was apprehensive about the journey because I speak next to no French, but it worked out just fine.  People speak a little English and I had researched the trip thoroughly, so I knew what to expect and where to go.  Once I arrived at the train station in Carcasonne, a representative from the retreat took me to the grocery store and then up the mountain to the house.

La Muse is run by John and Kerry two New York writers who bought the house– built in 1100 AD (!)- basically on their credit cards.  They live in a part of the house and the rest is occupied by writers who come for three week retreats.

I have been to many writer’s residencies, but never to a retreat.  La Muse is not like visiting an artist colony like MacDowell or Yaddo where there is a large staff dedicated to keeping the writers fed and watered.  La Muse is more like visiting your country home.  It’s in a beautiful location– you should see the view from my window!  The writers themselves are responsible for their own cooking and basic upkeep.  It has been nice so far taking care of myself.  In my regular life, I eat a LOT of New York take out, so it has been sort of relaxing to prepare my own meals in the evening with the fresh vegetables we bought at the supermarket. (Does anyone have a nice recipe for duck breast?  I bought one, but don’t know what to do with it!)  There are also opportunities to buy eggs, chickens, honey, tomatoes, etc that are raised and sold by the neighbors.  It’s really old world living.

As a retreat, rather than a residency, the writers simply rent rooms like you would do in a hotel.  I was attracted this because I was tired of soliciting letters of recommendations and anxiously awaiting a letter of acceptance.  With a retreat– you pay then you show up.  I chose a suite of rooms called “Calliope” because I like to sleep and write in different spaces.  But there are very nice rooms that have both the bed and writing table.  The house is about a thousand years old, so there are little quirks, but it’s very pretty and John and Kerry appear to be renovating it, one room at a time.  (My bathroom, for example, is dreamy!)

The up-side to the DIY-ness of the retreat is that you just eat when you’re hungry, drink when you’re dry.  There is no need to go to the dining room at any appointed time, possibly interrupting your writing groove.  But of course this is the downside as well.  If you want to eat, you’ve got to fix it and to plan it.  This morning, I had to get up from my writing table to meet the bread delivery man who brings the baguettes. But the upside is fresh baguette, warm from the oven!

In the afternoons we take long walks through windy mountain roads.  There is a spigot that offers crystal clear spring water where we fill our bottles.   Once a week, we go on an outing in John and Kerry’s car.  On the last day, we’ll get gussied up and go to a restaurant about 30 miles away that boasts of a Michelin star. (Yes, I’m into that.)

But the real pleasure of being here is the time to write and think.  When I arrived here, I had a little bit of work on my plate– letters of recommendation to write, novels to blurb, etc.  But I’ve put all those babies to bed, and now I can just sit here are spend some quality time with my characters.  I’ve been having a hard time writing lately– but over the last few days, I have felt the writing return.

I don’t have my typewriters, but pen and paper are working out just fine.

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Pep Talk For A Young Writer

Dear A–

Every rejection letter starts something like this:  ”Dear Ms. Jones, I am sorry to tell you that we are unable to offer you a fellowship/residency/admissions/whatever.”  Then there is a statement like this, “We received a GAZILLION submissions from qualified applicants but we were only able to award one-point-five fellowships/residencies/admissions/whatever.”  I sometimes read that as– Dear Ms. Jones, we don’t like  you and or your work.

But after serving on a number of committees that award fellowships/residencies/admissions/whatever, I can tell you from the inside that this is actually true.  I have never sat on a grant panel where there haven’t been very good applications that had to be turned down.  This is mostly because of money.  Arts funding is at an all time low, and the economy is bad.  So what does this mean?  It means that artists who used to make enough money from doing art– because they are accomplished and well known– are now applying for more grants and contests to get by, to get published. It’s really shocking, how I see pretty big names on press releases for grants, etc that used to be unofficially earmarked for emerging writers.

You are not the only one feeling discouraged right about now. So I just wanted to urge you not to be so sad, or at least not to be so sad that you give up.  Your application was good.  I read it, helped you proof it.  So I know it was good.  And trust me, I wrote you a hell of a letter of recommendation   You deserved the opportunity and there was probably someone at the table that wanted to give it to you.  It’s just that times are hard.  There is less to go around right now.  But you are still growing and learning and creating.  Keep at it.  Try again next year.  It’s just a matter of time.  I promise.

Love,

Tayari

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“…the first thing a writer must do is love the reader and wish the reader well.”

“…the first thing a writer must do is love the reader and wish the reader well. The writer must trust the reader to be at least as intelligent as he is. Only in such well wishing and trust, only when the writer feels he is writing a letter to a good friend, only then will the magic happen.

I have done the other thing. I have written bitter and cruel things and even published some them and I regret every one.”

from Falling Through Space by Ellen Gilchrist

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Write Tip: Getting Letters of Recomendation

It’s that time of year. If you’re like me, you’re setting goals and resolutions for 2013. And for me, this includes applying for various grants, awards, fellowships, and other opportunities. No matter where you are on the publishing totem pole, and no matter what you’re applying to, you are going to need letters of recommendation. I can’t overstate how important these letters are. So, to that end, the purpose of this post is to provide you with some tips on how to get the strong letters you are going to need to boost your applications.

Why do I even need letters? Shouldn’t my writing be enough?

Well, not really. The purpose of the letters is to create a narrative to supplement what you have turned in on your application. For example, if you are applying to graduate school, there is the question of can you write—which is what your writing sample is for. But there is are other questions like—does this applicant get along with other people? Does she have the follow through to complete what she starts? Is she crazy? The letters are there to fill in the gaps of what the committee can’t see from the resume.

Who should write the letters?

I know that some people believe that the writing biz is “all about who you know.” And, while, yes, it would probably be a plus to have a letter from a really famous person proclaiming you to the best writer ever, in the world, I don’t recommend that you go get a rec from the most prominent person you have access to. These are the things you should take into account when soliciting a letter:

How well does this person know you? You want to someone that can write a strong letter with lots of details with you and your writing. As a person who has participated on selection committees, I have seen letters from Very Famous People that are only three or four lines long: “I do not know XYZ candidate very well, but when I taught him at Bread Loaf he was a good writer.” A letter like that is not going to do anything for you. It would be much better to have a letter from a lesser known writer who can talk about you with more enthusiasm in more detail.

Do my letters have to be from writers? If you don’t know any writers, then obviously, you can’t get letters from writers. But it will be harder to get attention for the letters, but you have to work with what you have. If you haven’t yet worked with writers, try and get your letters from people who can speak to your dedication to writing and your character.

If the application calls for three references, how do I pick the three people? Keep in mind that different people can write about different aspects of your life. One person may testify to your writing skills, and someone else may know more about your gifts of organizations. Also consider that some writers are known for certain subject matters, or a certain writing style. If your work dovetails with that person’s specialty, then that’s a perfect fit. Your goal is to put together a letter writing team that can showcase all the things you’re good at.

What can I do to get good letters?

The main thing you can do is to be a good writer and a good citizen. The letters will focus on the quality of your writing and the kind of person you are. Your letter writer will likely be someone who has observed you in a number of situations, so keep in mind that you are always making an impression. If you are in school, conduct yourself in class in such a way that the professor will be happy to endorse you for a fellowship or grant. This is particularly true for MFA students—the letters in your file are as important as your GPA. There are some professors who write letters for all their students, but they don’t write strong letters for everyone. Trust me, committees can tell when a letter is written out of obligation. You have to work hard to earn strong letters.

The other thing you must do is to request the letters in a professional fashion. Think of each letter of recommendation as a gift. It takes me about an hour and an hour and a half to write a good one, and this time of year, I have many requests on my desk. You want to make sure that you get the best letter your recommender will write. So here are some tips:

Send supplementary materials. Don’t assume your recommend knows you well enough to write you a strong letter. Send your resume, a description of what you’re applying for, and a writing sample. It’s also good to include a copy of your statement of purpose that you’re including in the application so the recommender can know what you’re aiming for.

Make it as painless as possible for the recommender. I once had a former student who was applying to MFA programs. He sent me a shiny folder containing all the supplementary materials mentioned above, but also stamps and labels to make it easy for me to send off the applications. Not only was I pleased by the convenience factor, but I was also impressed by all the time he spent getting his act together. My letter was influenced by this, since it was clear that he was serious. His packet reflected the way he conducts himself as a writer—dedicated and committed. I wrote him a super-strong detailed letter and he got in everywhere he applied.

Finally, my last bit of advice is that you use a dossier service. Most universities offer this in the career placement department, but AWP also offers a dossier service. With this, your recommenders send a letter to the service who keep it on file. When you need a letter, you tell the service to send it, that way, you don’t have to keep asking people to send additional copies every time you apply for something. Update your letters every couple years or so to reflect your current level of fabulousness.

Good luck!

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Are you Working Too Hard? #NaNoActTo

Work to Live, Live to WorkI know I work to hard, but I am trying to learn to live/work/love differently.

It’s not Worth The Grief“ by J. Victoria Sanders on Feminist Wire really struck a chord with me.  For a long time, I thought working extremely hard was a way of showing self love.  After all, the only way I was going to reach my goals was to work for it, right?  Were these books going to write themselves?  Who was going to update my mailing list? Apply for these grants? Have you seen the VIDA numbers?  And besides, when I was working– writing, teaching, improving my apartment, whatever– it was something that I was doing just for me.  It was the rare time that I wasn’t laboring for the benefit of someone else, to meet someone else’s goals of what I should be doing with my life.  But guess what– too much work is just that, too much work.

Here is what J. Victoria Sanders wrote:

I basically subsisted on a few hours of sleep during the four semesters when I was teaching and publishing. I answered every e-mail and graded meticulously every single paper and PowerPoint presentation, all while producing a minimum of three stories and five blogs weekly at the paper—on top of freelance work. At work and after hours at home, I kept my inbox at zero, calling readers back, moderating comments and responding to sources. At ACC, I usually skipped dinner and had a bag of chips during my fifteen minute break so that I could mindfully and professionally attend to the needs of students there on Monday nights.

There was something really satisfying about it, I think, because I was used to abuse. I had no idea what to do with my feelings when I wasn’t working. My work addiction provided immediate gratification so that I was always accessible to anyone – student, editor, supervisor or reader.

I, too, am a hard worker and my mother before me has always worked hard.  I don’t think I have had any model of a woman who didn’t work and work and work.  My childhood memories of my father are of him in his basement office working and writing.  There was no room in our world for princesses. By and large, these lessons have served me well. When Silver Sparrow was in the final editing stage, I was also teaching full time and it was the end of the semester AND I was preparing my tenure packet.  I had my daily schedule calibrated down to every fifteen minutes. One item on the list: “Call parents. Assure them that I’m fine.”  The hard work has paid off, but I have also paid for it.

For women it’s a double edged sword.  “You work too hard,” is often thrown out as an insult by people who may resent your success. I have always taken it to mean– be a lady; stop trying to be somebody. I always want to say, “If you think think I am working too hard, why don’t you help me?”

The challenge for me is learning not to work even though there is no help on the way.  When I take time off, I come home to zillions of emails, interview requests, deadlines ticking like bombs.  When I don’t work, there are consequences.  There are opportunities that I may not be able to be able to take advantage of because I didn’t hope right on it.  Deadlines will be missed and people will be disappointed. (And of course there is the fear that I will ruin it for the black woman that comes behind me because I wasn’t perfect.)

For single women who don’t have children, it’s even harder to say no to work.  When a colleagues says she is not taking papers home because she wants to spend time with her kids, everyone says “awww…”  But if a single person says she is taking weekends off to chill, then it seems selfish.  So I always take time off to write.  It’s my passion. I love it.  But it’s not time off.  And for the women with children, taking your kids to soccer isn’t time off either.  And a week off work because of Hurricane Sandy– that’s not time off either.

I am not saying that we should all walk off our jobs tomorrow at noon, ringing phones be damned, or that we should drop the kids off at the pool and never come back. But let’s try small.  Find two consecutive hours this week where you just chill.  If you have to leave the house to do it, then do that.  Go have a coffee or take a walk– a leisurely walk.  No phone.  No iPad.  A book, but no reading for work or for school.  I imagine it will take a couple of tries to keep your mind in the moment.  You will visualize the emails, hallucinate the little tone that says more messages are coming in.  But let’s try to learn to shut the door to all that.  Baby steps are still steps.

 

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Summer Writing “Work-cation” in Lisbon, Portugual

Lisbon

This summer, I am joining the faculty Dzanc Books/CNC DISQUIET International Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal – July 1-13, 2012.  Two weeks of writing in a beautiful historic city by the sea.  Dreamy, right?  There will be workshops, readings, lectures, fellowshipping… Can’t wait.  Apply.  Make it a summer writing work-cation. More details here: http://disquietinternational.org/

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Losing Steam? It’s Okay. You Can Still #WriteLikeCrazy

Hi, Eveyone.  We are halfway through August, and I am noticing folks dropping out of #writelikecrazy.  Activity on the hashtag is slowing down.  I am not recieving as many cool photos of your workspaces.  The purpose of this post is to help you get back on board because we still have a lot of month left.

One question to ask yourself is whether you have set reasonable goals for yourself.  Remember, this is not NaNoWriMo.  We are not trying to cough up a whole book in a month.  We are just here to try and figure out some sustainable habits and jump start ourselves.  If you started this month like a crash diet, it’s no wonder that you have burned out.  But here is a great way that #WLC is better than a crash diet.  When you fall off the diet wagon, you just gain the weight back.  With #WLC, the progress you made in the early days is yours forever.  You can start again anything and move forward.

So rethink your goals.  Has school started for you, or your kids?  Are you going on vacation?  Factor that in and set a goal that you can read.  Can you do a page a day?  Maybe thirty minutes on the timer.  Give up watching Law & Order on Netflix and five that 42 minutes to your manuscript. As they say– A year from now, you will wish you had started today.

Are you second guessing yourself in general?  Are you worried that what you’re writing isn’t good enough?  May I offer this tweet from Anne Lamott whose wonderful book “Bird By Bird” really gets my engine running:

To be fair, sure a famous writer like Anne Lamott is coming from a different place than most of us– afterall, she is, apparently in bed while you might be at work.  But there is still wisdom in what she says.  Write.  Even if it’s bad.  If it’s bad, you can fix it.  But you can’t fix it until you’re written it.  Write that shitty first draft.  Don’t be mean to yourself.  Don’t tell yourself that it’s not good enough, or that you’re not good enough.

You can do this.  Really, you can.  Try again.

 

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