Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Barack and John Elder Robison, they are my brothers

I subscribe to the belief that wherever we go, we begin busily building our family-of-origin very nearly as we arrive. Your first teachers quickly became mom or dad to you. And in every job I've had, my boss became parent and coworkers were siblings with whom I played and rivaled for attention.

So, when I began working with my editor Rachel Klayman at Crown in 2005, she morphed into a mommy person pretty quickly for me. Super smart and hyper-observant mom, at that. And, when I was born into this family, there were siblings, the other writers with whom she was working. Sometimes, I bristled when I heard their names. One "older brother" was named Barack and he was in the news a lot. Once after a strenuous editing session, "mom" reassured me that "all the writers need that."

"Even Barack?" I typed in a whiny voice.
"All the writers, except Barack," she replied swiftly.

Then, a new baby arrived, and his name was John Elder Robison and his book was called LOOK ME IN THE EYE. And now, "mom" was very excited and I was too. John's book was barely in the stores before it hit the New York Times Bestseller list. New brother had a story to tell about growing up with Aspergers that readers needed, and still need, to hear.

I'm proud to be in the Crown family with John Elder Robison and that LOOK ME IN THE EYE is one the books in Theo's Big Memoir Giveaway. Visit John at or on Facebook at

You Can Take the Girl Out of Montana, but You Can't Take the Montana out of the Woman: Carlene Cross

Growing up on a Montana ranch, the road into Fundamentalism was an easy one for the young Carlene Cross, it's the road out that was long and treacherous. And what makes for a better memoir than treachery?

I read Carlene's memoir, Fleeing Fundamentalism, right after I met Carlene in 2008. I picked it up thinking, I dunno, Fundamentalism? And, about eight hours later, I looked up and children were circling me demanding dinner. Where had I been? I'd been following this Jane Eyre of a narrator as she smuggled bibles into Eastern Europe as a teen, hung out with Quakers, and fell into the arms of the wrong guy--the charismatic young minister who turns into the narrator's worst nightmare.

But as I was reading about the young Carlene, my mind kept flashing to the present Carlene. The country girl turned city woman who'd raised her children mostly on her own, who'd worked for PBS, who wrote two books even though nobody ever told her she could. And who'd just lost her son in Afghanistan.

On July 13, 2008, Carlene's son, Jason and eight other soldiers were killed in the battle of Wanat, and since then Carlene and a group of other parents who lost their sons that day have been telling their sons' stories and refusing to let the matter drop.

Carlene's next project is a book about what happened in the Battle of Wanat and the nine men who died. When I talk to Carlene about her next book, the importance of this story sends a shiver through me. It's a story that needs to be told, and Carlene is the writer to tell this story.

I'm proud to have Carlene Cross' FLEEING FUNDAMENTALISM as one of our books in Theo's Big Memoir Giveaway. Learn more about Carlene at

Want to know more about what happened in Wanat?

Learn about the Dateline special on Wanat at

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Thich is My Drink or how I stopped competing with Suzanne Finnamore

I've always been uncomfortable with competition. And not for any Thich Nhat Hanh-type reasons. The main reason is that I spent most of my childhood on the losing end of the equation. Most childhood jousts are not of the mind; they are of the body. The body isn't my specialty. I'm not--I found out during the Glenmore school track meet of 1972--fast. Not coordinated. Not agile. Not especially alert. You get the idea.

So, I've gone most of my life not feeling competitive, to the point that I actually believed that I was not competitive, that I was, maybe, a bit Thich Nhat Hanhish, you know--like better than others. That is, until I started writing and publishing. And, yes, it turns out; I'm quite mortal and quite competitive.

The trouble with writing, though, is that there isn't any real winning, per se. Yes, some people get large advances, some sell zillions of books, and some win awards. But none of these are really any assurance that you have "won." But, frankly, all that type of heady success and whatever feelings of competition might come with it is hypothetical for me.

But a very real feeling of competition reared for me a few years ago on the eve of How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed's publication. My agent called.
"Have you heard of Suzanne Finnamore?"
"Sure, Otherwise Engaged, right?"
"That's the one. Well, funny thing is she has a book just like yours coming out the same week."
Okay, so what part is funny about a bestselling author coming out with a divorce memoir the same week as mine? Just like mine? Was that even possible?

Suddenly, in my mind, we were pitted against each other. The world had boiled down to two opponents in a ring: Suzanne (who probably didn't know I existed) and me. Except for, except I said, she was, and is, a bestselling author and this was my first book. Everywhere I went I saw reviews of her book. A friend phoned to say she'd seen one in O mag. I was in the chiropractor's (back aching from driving to read to a handful of my mother's elderly friends in Nowheresville, WA) and there--split open on the table-- People magazine with a big, glossy review of the book "just like mine."

But all those years of losing, of living out my personal non-compete clause, did build in me some sort of understanding of the inherent artificiality of competition. If nothing else, I really do believe that there's room for lots of good writing in this world, and I think it's magic when writers work together to support each others' causes. I bought the book. I read it. I laughed. I cried. I loved it. And, it wasn't "just like mine."

In the spirit of Thich, Suzanne Finnamore's SPLIT is one of the fabulous books in Theo's Big Memoir Giveaway. Check out Suzanne's website at But, then, you better go to mine!

Writing about myself is my drink or how I met David Shields

Last week I wrote about that dark time in this writer's life: the 80's, the terrible floundering with the Less than Zero prototype novel and the lonely search for a genre. There's more to the 80's story--including a detour through academia. Caught in a tangle of Derrida and feminist literary criticism, I put my "creative writing" on hold and muscled my way through a masters degree in English Lit. But, maybe we'll circle back to that another time, because this week I want to write about the participating writers in Theo's Big Memoir Giveaway.

So fast forward past evenings of pretending to understand Foucault, an oral defense that nearly killed me and seven years teaching at a community college and we land in my never-ending sabbatical, the first two years of which I spent in the fiction writing program at the University of Washington.

My first workshop was with David Shields. I was excited to take the class because he said something in the course description like he felt he had more to learn from Seinfeld than Faulkner. Yes! Me too! Intimidated as hell, I turned in my first lackluster story. Our tiny class was talented and smart and completely unimpressed with my stilted, generic short story. I think someone might have used the word "banal" but I could be wrong. A week or so later, one of the other writers said to me, "Why don't you write about the stuff that really scares you?"

Um. yeah. Why don't I?

But the challenge was out there, and a few nights later, I got up and wrote my first essayish thing. I didn't know what it was. It had scenes. It had musing. Some statistics. What was it? Did this type of beast have a name? Could I hand it into a fiction workshop when it was clearly about me and clearly about the scariest thing I could write about?

When you're in a workshop class, no one wants to admit it, but you're basically holding your breath waiting for the golden moment when you definitively know the class and the professor "like" it (okay, love it). You're supposed to be listening for important criticism, but really you're listening with all your being for that moment, and when it's there, you know it.

The moment sounded like this: "This, this is what you should be writing."

And that moment was brought to me by David Shields, one of our writers in Theo's Big Memoir Giveaway. His genre-defying book THE THING ABOUT LIFE IS THAT ONE DAY YOU'LL BE DEAD shot onto the New York Times Bestseller List shortly after the book's 2008 publication, demonstrating that readers are willing to stretch themselves and read a book that's part personal story, part chronology of the human body, and part philosophy. Probably part something else too. You tell me.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Before there was memoir, there was the 80s

There's always been a few lone wolf memoirs getting published here and there: Maya Angelou's Caged Bird; Russell Baker's Growing Up; James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son---and weird, sketchy writing that lives in the DMZ between journalism and memoir (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; the essays of Joan Didion). But mostly, before the mid-90's the memoir became the exploding genre that it is (I credit Frank McCourt, may he rest in peace), there was the autobiographical novel (my beloved The Bell Jar, On the Road, Fear of Flying, my oh-so-beloved Heartburn).

And then, there was the 80's. The 80's are important to me because that's when I was first dreaming of becoming a writer. Except for the lone-wolf exceptions, we didn't have memoir in the 80's. It was a dark time. Very dark. We didn't have memoir, but we had the Brat Pack. We had Less than Zero; We had Bright Lights, Big City--and most, painfully for me, we had Tama Jamovitz and her damn Slaves of New York. These writers were writing a sort of cinema verite fiction, fiction that read like memoir, but memoirs of a particular class and place, memoirs of everything that I was not.

It was memoir of a big city youth (NYC or LA, it doesn't matter) a few years out of the Ivy League with characters with plenty of resources, breeding and yummy networking connections to fall back on when the coke ran out. And except for Janowitz, they were male. So Janowitz became the focus of my first real case of writer envy. Like me, she was female and writing about "real" stuff. Unlike me, she had oodles of long hair, a tiny waist and lived a Lower East Side groovy life that people actually wanted to read about.

I loved Slaves of New York and I hated it. Hated it because my life was so impossibly off-center. I spent my growing up years in Canada, for god's sake. I went to a flippin' community college, and at that time Slaves hit the bookstores, I was living in the middle of the desert waiting tables in Cajun restaurant. I wasn't doing the right thing in the right place and never had been. But did that stop me from writing derivative drivel? Sadly, no.

Forgive me. There was no memoir genre, the genre I was born for. I was young. I was of Brat Pack age. Born a few degrees off, I could've been Demi Moore in St. Elmo's Fire. So my first "novel" was written in the voice of Less than Zero. A laconic present tense first person. But are we in LA? Are we with Ivy League drop outs? No, our opening scene finds our narrator in a Cajun restaurant in the middle of desert.

I never finished it. I'm thinking that's a good thing. I found it the other day and was stunned, stunned, at how bad the writing is (thank god i wasn't asking anyone for a stamp of approval with that one). But in a way, as bad as it is, I have a kind of love for those wretched chapters. I was a young writer in search of a genre, trying to write memoir in the lonely time before you could write about yourself without pretending to be cooler than you really are.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Stamp of Approval

Sometimes writing students want me to assess their talent and the chances of their success. If at all possible, I will steer the topic away from this, but if they ask me point blank, I'll say, "I really can't say." Which annoys people. But here's why I can't say: I have no idea what this writer will do next to develop as a writer, how tenacious they are, and how their writing will develop after hours, days, yearsspent at the keyboard.

But still I understand--really understand--their desire for the assessment. I remember wanting that myself. I wanted a writing elder to say, Go forth writing cub! You are TALENTED. (It's a little embarrassing to admit that but I also realize that it's normal for newer writers to want this stamp of approval). But, the problem is this desire for validation privileges talent above all else and assumes that talent is an objective quality that established writers (whatever their aesthetic) will be able to accurately assess.

I remember when I was in a graduate workshop with David Shields, he looked around the room (there were 9 of us) and said, "It's impossible for me to know which of you will succeed as writers. You are all talented, but I don't know which of you are willing to stick with it long enough to get published." At the time, I was still buying into the school of Talent Rules and doubted if what he said was true. There was one writer in the class who I was sure would be in the pages of Harper's, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly within a few years. But, as it turned out, she cut her writing losses and left the program to pursue a career in law. Maybe she'll come back to writing. I hope so. I liked her voice.

But all that being said, we all need encouragement, and a little encouragement can go a long way. My first college writing teacher, Penny Connell (Penny, are you out there?), pretty much looked me in the eye and said, "You got it, kid." I was only 18 and if someone as smart as her said I got it, I must "have it." I remember she'd written encouraging comments all over my first essay and the comments dropped right down into the center of me. I wanted more of this feeling. I wanted to capture readers like her.

15 years later I found that essay when I was going through some old papers. Wow! I thought as I began to read, excited to see those little germs of talent that Penny had called out. Well, let me tell you it was the most ordinary of freshman essays. I've taught freshman comp, and believe me, there was nothing in this essay that really jumped off the page. What had she seen? I don't know. But I do know that it was her encouragement that made me want to write more. And, really, that's the most we can hope for from our writing teachers.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Writing for love and for money

Working with newer writers as a teacher and coach, I am reminded of my foggy intentions as I first stumbled towards writing. Did I want to be a journalist? a poet? a fiction writer? I didn't know. Was I writing for money? self-expression? love? fame? recognition from my peers? Yes, all of these. So, every piece of writing I did was unfairly asked to meet competing needs. Like a journalist, I wanted to make some money from my writing. Like a poet or a fiction writer, I wanted to express something previously unexpressed about life, preferable I'd bring the ineffable to the page in some startling new way that would bring me the awe of writers I admired. And through all of this confusion about why I was writing each piece, I hadn't even yet found the vehicles my voice was suited for--personal essays and memoir.

In the past year, I've become acutely aware of my competing needs as a writer. I want to make money (there I said it). I want to express what has not been expressed. I want to write work that expands hearts and minds. I want peers to "get" and--I admit it--admire my work. But, I realize that if I'm making a living as a writer and writing teacher (which I am! a dream come true!), every writing task will be addressing at least one of my goals, but no writing task will address all of them. I write articles for money for I don't expect them to be poetry or to win awards for them. I'm writing another book--it's a ton of work and who knows what the money will be--but it's my book and I get to say exactly what I want in it, just the way I want to say it. Delicious.

When you approach a writing task, ask yourself: What am I hoping to get from this? The love of my mother? a big check? small check? a publication credit? a chance to create a literary vision? the thrill of a byline? a bigger audience? All of these goals are legitimate, but no writing task--don't matter how great a writer you are--can meet every goal. It's okay to write for money and it's okay to write for love. It's very rare to write for both at the same time. And, it's a ton easier to find the words if you know why you're looking for them.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

It started like this

I read or heard recently that most writers have distinct memories of writing "books" in childhood. I remember one I wrote one about a rabbit named Felix bound with an ant trail of staples up the spine. So satisfying! But, the urge to write went underground during adolescence. It might have had everything to do with the desultory manner in which language arts was taught in British schoolmarm-dominated Canada, and that we never read anything that met my reader cravings. No women writers, no first person, no writers of color. More than anything I longed for first person. While The Catcher in the Rye was okay, pretty good--the narrator was removed from me by a generation and a gender. I wanted writing that felt like it was happening now, writing that broke the secret code of life. Some of my best reading moments were in the sixth grade when underground copies of The Happy Hooker and Go Ask Alice made it into my hands. Above ground, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret slaked my thirst temporarily.

My first writer falling in love happened with a movie not a book. I went with my high school boyfriend to Annie Hall. I came out of the theater a changed person. I was near panting trying to express to my confused boyfriend, a future engineer who thought the movie was "okay," what was happening. I was intoxicated by the first person narration, the way Woody mused to the camera about relationships, the split screens, the subtitles, the scene when Max, Woody and Annie time travel to visit Woody's childhood on Coney Island, the character of Annie (a quirky, non-babe woman as love interest!), the literary references, but most of all, some internal divining rod in me sensed this story was from his own life. Before I knew the word memoir, before I read Fear of Flying or Notes from a Native Son, before I ever knew who Joan Didion or Sylvia Plath was, I had Woody.

But I couldn't quite figure out how to apply this urgency to create something like Annie Hall. A few hours out of the movie, I sensed that Woody and I were not on an equal playing field. I couldn't express it then, but I intuited that being male and Jewish and a New Yorker was a distinct literary advantage. I was a sixteen year old girl living in a Canadian suburb where locking your front door was optional. My Coney Island was Protestants drinking gin and tonics in the living room after 18 holes. What possibly could be of interest?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

X is My Drink

Sometimes in Al-Anon someone will say something like, "X is my drink." X might be "worry" or "obsessive thinking." Most of us in Al-Anon have lived with an alcoholic--most likely grew up with one or fell in love with one, very often both. So while we might not be compulsively drinking ourselves, many of us have something we feel like we can't stop doing. Maybe we can't stop worrying about what might happen to the alcoholic or to ourselves. Or about whether we left the stove on or the garage door open. Fun stuff.

So that's where the title of this blog comes from. Writing is my drink. Writing is my "go to" thing, the think I can't stop doing, and it's not unrelated to the drinking I grew up with. Like many kids who grew up in the blue cloud of the early '60s, I felt like I had to be "good." And often good meant not talking about what was really happening--the argument that erupted downstairs after you were supposed to be asleep, the inviolability of the 5pm Happy Hour. And if you don't talk or think about the stuff that's real for long enough, you'll probably find you actually have no idea what you think. At least, that's what happened to me.

Writing has been part of my recovery from being good, silent, and in denial. All of those are so much a part of who I am that I keep coming back to the page to remind myself that I have a point of view, at take on the world. Not the take. A take. Mine.

Writing is also my drink because it's my high. Sometimes, that's great. I got so excited about starting this blog yesterday that my thoughts were consumed with what would I write next, how I would say it. Even trying to fall asleep, my mind will pull up a sentence, parse through it, searching for how it might be better, how it might be tweaked just a little, and then finally become the perfect articulation of an experience. Finally, I will have reached that place of expression, free at last from the isolation of unnamed life.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Step One: We admitted we were powerless over the printed word.

I was born to drink. I'm the daughter of Betty and Don Draper from Mad Men, and I swear I came out of the delivery room with Frank Sinatra crooning, "It's no good unless you love them allllllllll the way," a gin gimlet in my bottle, and a pack of Pall Malls tucked into my baby blanket.

I couldn't wait to grow up and be like my mom--hosting cocktail parties, clicking about in slingbacks with matching sheath dresses, and nuzzling handsome men in dark bars with the flashing martini glass above the door. When one of those guys caught me taking a hit off the lipsticked butt of a Salem Menthol at age 7, I didn't skip a beat before I answered the whatcha-doing question with a sweet-voiced, "Just pretending to be my mom."

But things didn't work out for drinking and me. Yes, I had my wild times in my early twenties, but I didn't have the staying power; I couldn't sustain a drinking life. The gift for real drinking had passed me by in the great genetic shuffle. And by 25, I had my nose stuck in a book. I wanted the literary life, the way my mom wanted the Rat Pack one. These days I can fall asleep after just a half a glass of Shiraz, but the right words can keep me up into the party hours of the night.

This blog is about my wild writing life, my desire to find myself on the printed page and to finally make sense of the thirst that runs through my family.