Monthly Archives: March 2014
Mini-Memoir Essay contest: Success on my own terms
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2500-3500 words. Deadline May 2nd, 2014
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Friday’s writing prompt is a single word, “spring.” What does the word mean to you? No-one in our group was much enthused about writing for ten minutes about a mundane word like “spring” but we did, and we each attached a different meaning to the word.
One storyteller wrote about spring cleaning and how she brainstorms creative projects while she pushes a vacuum around the house. Another writer became a tour guide in the barren desert landscape of Ethiopia, where a water hole really is a living metaphor for the resilience of Earth and its people. Another time-writing traveler whisked us to Old Town America, when mothers made spring dresses for their daughters and prepared trays of home baked breakfast goodies for community gatherings. Maybe Spring is a season, a time to wear less clothing, a time for the birds and bees. Or not. Maybe spring is a coil of metal, or a sound—a voice that groans every time it is stretched awake to welcome you home.
Spring. For me it’s a time of mystical, hidden themes like a table set for Persian New Year, full of ancient symbols. Spring is a relentless medicine, a prescription of healthy day-capsules filled with more sunshine than darkness. It is an assortment of stories with secret messages, and a series of mysterious beginnings that eclipse every ending. Once it was a nerve-racking Easter holiday when I was introduced to my husband’s family, another time it was an Easter Sunday of bewilderment when I had a miscarriage. Spring furls open with a new message every year. This year’s secret motif, and my Lenten contemplation, is to gather stories of compassion, sometimes a heavy topic, sometimes inspirational.
Spring is mutable. As I type on an overcast day, I feel like planning for the summer and planting dreams as hopefully as a farmer ploughs his crops into the earth, wishing for abundance and a better future for all.
Amy Friedman was a guest speaker at my local writing club in Ontario Library. I was curious about her knowledge about prisoners because I help out at Claremont’s Prison Library Project, mailing books to prisoners. Amy offered advice for writers, an entertaining series of short stories based on personal experiences. This is how she explained the benefits of joining a critique workshop:
“When I tell people that I married a man who was serving a life sentence for murder, the most common response is negative—comments like ‘What were you thinking? Why?’ Well, I got married because I fell in love, and I fell in love with a prisoner because he was a person, and everyone is complex.
As a writer, you cannot predict people’s reactions but hearing their perspective gives you new eyes and feedback will improve your writing. When I was looking for a new critique group for my memoir ‘Desperado’s Wife,’ someone in a prospective workshop group said, ‘you married a man who was in prison. Yuck, how could you do that?’ and I decided this was the right team of people to critique my book. When my chapter about falling in love with a prisoner elicited positive reactions, it successfully moved people to think differently.”
Friedman teaches memoir and personal essay at the UCLA Extension Writers Studio, and is a journalist by training. Top on her list of advice was to write, and write often. Years of deadlines with a local newspaper kept her on task, writing two thousand words every week. Amy said this column was hard work, and a “gift” because these personal essay assignments made her writing authentic, and encouraged her to “helicopter” into new worlds for inspiration. The more she wrote, “the more clear what I was trying to say came on the page.”
It also fostered a column, “The Bedtime Story,” her idea for a newspaper story for children. Which lead to her second recommendation—pursue all chances to get your writing out into the world. Writing and discovering publishing opportunities will lead to publication, however writing for the sake of becoming published will not. Don’t write for others. Write because it has to be written, even if it were for one person.
The craft of writing is making one mess of a draft and re-writing it into a story. Once the book is written, an author is still not done. “It takes staying power, more than you’d ever imagine to finish a book project.” Agents come and go, bestselling topics come and go, and these cycles are out of your control. No one can predict what book will hit the mark. All a writer can do is write with an authentic voice and be attentive to their projects.
While working on this list, Amy had collaborated with her husband who is also a writer. His comments focused on expectations, specifically the formula of time and money—and return on investment. Few writers, even successful ones, live off the money made from selling books. Most writers have side jobs to pay the bills; her income is from teaching, editing and ghostwriting. It takes time to write a book, years to market, to publish, and a writer might not see a paycheck from a book for as long as four years. If you want to be a writer, choose to write as a career, not for the experience of a one time writing project.
Writing is a combination of negative and positive experiences. When Amy was ghostwriting a book, One Soufflé at a Time, she found herself travelling to Yorkshire, England and even had meals prepared for her by a private chef in a castle in Burgundy! A definite perk.
When you are a writer, you never know what world, fictitious or real, will open up to you.
Our writing prompt today was “missing plane” as in Malaysian Airlines, Flight MH 370. Every Friday morning, I meet with a small group of talented writers. We agree on a topic, write for ten minutes and share our works.
A writer can create worlds and happy endings. My plane crashes in a rugged landscape. There are fistfights among the passengers as they follow a stream to an oasis. World politics escalate and military threats abound, until a heroic, if unlikely, rescue team is formed when a Zoroastrian, a mullah and a US Ranger walk into a kabob house, somewhere in that lost region of Eastern Iran.
In our writing session today I learned that we all feel incomplete until the fate of the plane is explained. After a week, theories about elves and movable Bermuda triangles seem as logical as the press reports of wreckage in the ocean, an inexplicable diversion, and a five-hour flight to nowhere.
We’re connected to this story by the universality of experience. We’ve all checked the phone for calls from travelers who should already be safe at home, waited for no-shows, or felt anxiety about a situation that is out of our control. We wait for a hopeful resolution with the families of these passengers. We are unsettled. We want the situation fixed, like when an correction in a sentence is needed, because the last words are