Boundaries

Good fences make good neighbors.” — Robert Frost

One of our neighbors is building a stone wall at the edge of his property.

Watching his progress, I’m reminded of my childhood road trips to historic New England. From the back seat of my dad’s Chevy Impala, I’d count miles and miles of curvy pastoral roads lined with rambling field stone walls.

Guarding cemeteries or defining farmland, those venerable stone borders conveyed a sense of authority — though some were barely tall enough to stop trespassers on a mission. Sections of the walls dated back to the American Revolution, when our young country was in the process of defending and defining its own boundaries.

Everyone needs boundaries. While most humans crave social connection, there are times when we all need to draw invisible lines between “us and them.” Healthy personal boundaries help protect our own space and identity. They remind others that we have a right to privacy; that we are not accessible to everyone at all times.

Women seem to have a tougher time setting limits and boundaries. Hard-wired to nurture and assist, we often answer the needs of others before our own, whether we’re caring for small children or elderly parents.

But our personal boundaries start to blur when we spend too much time meeting the needs and expectations of others. When this becomes a pattern, we must stop saying “yes” to every request for our time and attention.

Today, thanks to cell phones and the Internet, most of us are over-connected and readily available. While I consider myself a people person, I’m easily overwhelmed by the constant chatter and demands of social media — Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and blogs — not to mention the never-ending stream of email to read and answer.

Sometimes, all it takes is a long, solo bike ride through the neighborhood to restore my equilibrium.  It also helps to declare “time out” from social media for a day or two.

Building a metaphorical fence around my time is the best way to restore my sanity when everything feels like “too much” to handle.  What about you? Do you find it hard to create or maintain your own boundaries? — Cindy La Ferle

Digging the family dirt

Perhaps the questions the writer most fears from her potential readers is: Why have you done this? With the implication: Why have you done this to me? — Mary Gordon, Circling My Mother

Can we get too personal when we’re writing our memoirs or family stories? Is it wiser to stuff the hard emotional truth into a private journal and keep quiet?

The dilemma hit home last week when I visited my mother in her new assisted living residence. On the table in her kitchenette was a fresh copy of Michigan Senior Living, a publication featuring a new column I’d written about my mother’s difficult transition to assisting living. Oops. It should go without saying that I didn’t intend for my mother to see it.

Focusing on the heartbreak of Mom’s battle with vascular dementia, the column was the most difficult assignment I’ve ever tackled. So I was relieved to learn later that my candid story helped many readers who are facing similar challenges with their parents.

In any event, I have no idea how the magazine found its way to her apartment. My mother doesn’t subscribe to the newspaper that includes Michigan Senior Living as a supplement.

As it happens, Mom’s vascular dementia has progressed to the point where she can’t process and retain new information. Not all that long ago, she’d devour decorating magazines and mystery novels faster than I could supply her with new editions — but she’s lost her ability to read much of anything now. Regardless, I discretely pulled the publication off her table and stuffed it into my tote bag.

Having worked as a family newspaper columnist for years, I’ve wrestled with similar issues many times before. But this recent episode got me thinking about how risky personal writing can be — whether we’re writing about our parents, children, siblings, or in-laws.

How much is too personal?

In “How to Write a Memoir” in The American Scholar, author and creative writing professor William Zinsser offers some excellent advice. “Your first job is to get your story down as you remember it—now,” Zinsser says. “Don’t look over your shoulder to see what relatives are perched there. Say what you want to say, freely and honestly, and finish the job. Then take up the privacy issue.”

If your relatives are named or clearly identified in print, Zinsser suggests, you may want to show them the pages in which they are mentioned. But be prepared for your family to ask you to remove anything they don’t like.

“Finally, it’s your story,” Zinsser says. “Some of your relatives will wish you hadn’t said some of the things you said, especially if you reveal various family traits that are less than lovable. But I believe that at some level most families want to have a record left of their effort to be a family, however flawed that effort was, and they will give you their blessing and will thank you for taking on the job—if you do it honestly and not for the wrong reasons.”

The “wrong reasons” vary from writer to writer, so it’s important to question your own motives when you sit down to write. If you’re hoping to commit an act of vengeance, for instance, you’re definitely on the wrong track. On the other hand, if you aim to uplift, inform, comfort, or provide a service to your readers, your good intentions will shine through the most painful parts of your piece.

What to leave in — or out

In my own memoir classes, I often ask students to make a list of the most compelling memoirs and autobiographies they’ve ever read. Did the writers of those memoirs gloss over their most difficult experiences? Were their chapters free of conflict? Were the characters entirely noble, flawless, or problem-free? Probably not. Life is incredibly complex and messy, and no family is perfect.

Even if you enjoy reading other people’s dirt and drama, you’re probably squeamish when it comes to sharing your own. And it’s entirely possible that you might be better off writing poetry or science fiction instead. But if you want to write an honest and richly detailed memoir, you will have to confront the hard truth as well as the soft.

Brett Paesel agrees. Writing without censoring early in the process will usually “produce the freshest, deepest draft,” says Paesel, author of Mommies Who Drink and a popular blog, Last of the Bohemians. “As I’m revising, I make choices about what I want a reader to read,” she says. “Often, I leave in quite a bit. My family knows what I do and I’m not normally an unkind person.”

As Paesel notes, if you don’t want your memoir to be “totally soft,” it’s likely that you’ll risk offending someone. “Off the top of my head I can’t remember who said, ‘If people don’t like what you’ve written about them, they shouldn’t have behaved so badly,’ but they have a point.”

What do you think? Have you written anything about your family that you’d be reluctant to publish? How would you handle sensitive material?

— Top photo: “My Wall of Fame” by Cindy La Ferle —

Home Office on Facebook

It’s no secret that I’ve been conflicted about Facebook for years. The dilemma, in a nutshell: How can I avoid annoying my family/close friends with work-related status updates? And how can I avoid “over-sharing” personal or family updates with my colleagues and students? In other words, the way I see it, the same people who want news about my published stories or writing workshops don’t necessarily want updates on how my mother’s pacemaker is working.

I suppose I could fiddle with all kinds of privacy settings to control my Facebook content. But I found a more creative — and democratic — way to settle the whole issue without hurting folks or making a social-media mess of things.

This week I launched a brand-new Facebook “author page” titled Cindy La Ferle’s Home Office and Blog. This one will feature daily creativity quotes, links to posts on this blog, my own photography and artwork, fresh inspiration for creative people, updates on my workshops, and other local or national resources you’ll want to know about. And when it’s time to announce my next book, that’s where I’ll share the news first.

I’m having a blast launching the new page! Serving as a bridge to this blog, it’s also a fantastic way to stay in touch with students who’ve taken my workshops. And I always enjoy hearing from people who enjoy the written word as much as I do.

Please join me at Cindy La Ferle’s Home Office on Facebook. Once you “like” the new page, you’ll get my updates and a daily dose of creative inspiration in your Facebook feed. — Cindy La Ferle

A tribute to the tomato

A world without tomatoes is like a string quartet without violins” — Laurie Colwin

Though I rarely write much about food, I’ve always felt a sweet and satisfying connection between writing and gardening.

Whenever I’m blocked, for instance, I close to the door to my home office and head outdoors to my garden. The sight of my prolific herb patch alone is enough to remind me that all’s right with the world — even if the paragraphs I’m working on are a weedy, tangled mess. Grabbing a cup of coffee, then checking on the progress of my plants, is now part of my morning routine.

Admittedly, this hasn’t been a banner year for my tomatoes so far. As a rule, my plants are usually producing more fruit by this time — and more blossoms. I’m hoping things will turn around by August, when summer’s final blast of heat typically ripens the Big Boys to succulent perfection. By then, my kitchen counter will (I hope) boast an embarrassment of riches.

Looking for culinary inspiration, I’m already poring over my favorite cookbooks for recipes that take full advantage of the season’s bounty. My aim is instant gratification. Thankfully, the humble tomato always cooperates when I want to keep things simple. I can make a robust gazpacho in minutes by chopping two ripe tomatoes and whirling them in my blender with a can of tomato juice, a chopped cucumber, a few scallions, a clove of fresh garlic, and a dash or two of olive oil and cumin powder.

I also admire the tomato for having so few prejudices. It’s willing to co-mingle in a wide variety of ethnic dishes, embracing the sweet and the sour with equal abandon. When it’s really fresh, I love it in Middle Eastern cuisine. Last year, for example, my favorite summer meal was the classic Lebanese salad. You can make your own by dicing a large tomato (discard juice and seeds), and tossing it in a bowl with diced red onions (to taste) and a cup of diced cucumber. Toss the mix with a drizzle of olive oil, fresh lemon juice, salt, pepper, and a handful of chopped fresh parsley.

I can’t think of summer tomatoes without remembering my paternal grandfather’s gourmet cooking, which often included the farm-fresh tomatoes grown near his home in Indianapolis. Inspired by the foods he enjoyed while visiting Mexico, Grandpa Wayne ignited nearly everything he cooked with generous splashes of Tabasco sauce. After researching every vintage cookbook I’ve collected, I still can’t find a single recipe that competes with the one he concocted for tongue-tingling fried tomatoes. But here’s my own adaptation:

Gather a few firm beefsteak tomatoes. Slice them thickly, then coat thoroughly with whole wheat flour mixed with a little cornmeal. Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet, then add the floured tomato slices when the skillet is very hot. Season each slice with splashes of Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco sauce, and garlic salt to taste, taking care to douse both sides with the seasonings as you fry. Brown the tomatoes as long as you can without burning them, then serve as a side dish or as a main course for a simple vegetarian meal.

Grandpa Wayne served his famous fried tomatoes for €œcompany breakfasts€ — southern Indiana-style — along with slow-cooked sausage (spicy, of course), scrambled eggs, and a bottomless pitcher of Bloody Marys. He lived longer than my other grandparents, and probably would have attributed his longevity to the spicy foods he consumed. I still remember waiting what seemed like an eternity for Grandpa to get those huge breakfasts on the table. Things moved more slowly back then, and I’ve only just begun to appreciate the benefits of such a leisurely tempo. Just as I’ve grown to appreciate the best fried tomato recipe that ever crossed the Indiana-Michigan border. — Cindy La Ferle 

$hould you write for free?

“Self-respect is a matter of recognizing that anything worth having has a price.” – Joan Didion

Some of us are half-serious when we joke about loving our work so much that we’d “do it for free” if we had to. Yet it’s all too easy to cheat ourselves if we don’t respect our own talent and effort.

That said, putting a dollar value on freelance work is tougher than ever these days.

In my workshops, for instance, I often coach new writers who’ve been encouraged to provide material for free (or for ridiculously low rates) with the promise that gratis assignments will help build portfolios. This logic usually works because the freelance cycle is vicious: It is harder to get your stuff published if you haven’t been published before, or if you can’t boast a few impressive credits. Scores of editors will take full advantage of this fact — especially if their budgets are shrinking and their publications are struggling.

As nearly every professional writer will tell you, we’re all working three times as hard for half the money we earned when we started out in this crazy business years ago. The Internet that made it possible for everyone and his brother to get published is largely responsible for cutting or completely eliminating our paychecks. (Note: On this post, I’m not talking about posting entries on your own blog, or self-publishing. I am talking about writing for other publishers who don’t pay you for your work.)

Of course, there are times when writing for peanuts might be worth your effort. Perhaps you’d like to support a non-profit organization with a cause that speaks directly to your heart. Or maybe you want to help a friend launch a new magazine that offers literary prestige — and paying assignments in the future. Or maybe you’re writing a review in exchange for tickets to a concert or a play.

Would you ask an architect to design a dream house and seal the drawings for free?  Would you ask your dental hygienist to clean your teeth without charging you? Would you ask a plumber to repair your broken toilet as a favor?”

But here’s the deal: If you keep giving your work away, it will become much harder for you — and your colleagues — to get paid for good writing later on. In this business, word gets around in more ways than one. If an editor knows you’ve been writing or blogging without pay for other publications, what would motivate her to reward you with anything but “exposure”?

If you’re just getting started in a writing career, it’s true that providing free content hones your skills and gives you a chance to learn how the publishing business works. And the “exposure” to a readership — which is the carrot most editors will dangle when they can’t pay you  — is a bonus if the publication is reputable. But no matter how exciting it is to snag a byline or recognition, you must reach a point where you value your experience and charge an appropriate fee for it.

Always remember: If a print or online publication sells advertising and/or subscriptions, it is earning money from the content provided by writers and photographers. Your work supports those publishers.

Think about it this way … Would you ask an architect to design a dream house and seal the drawings for free?  Would you ask your dental hygienist to clean your teeth without charging you? Would you ask a plumber to repair your broken toilet as a favor?

If you don’t value your own time, talent, or expertise, who will? The difference between a professional and a hard-working volunteer, after all, is just a paycheck. Or, as Eleanor Roosevelt once said, nobody can take advantage of you without your permission. Whatever the work at hand, if you want to be treated like a professional, act like one. Expect to be paid what your work is worth. — Cindy La Ferle

UPDATE: This post prompted many insightful comments from freelancers in a variety of creative fields. Read their opinions by clicking on the “Comments” link a few lines below.