Archive for the ‘Just for writers’ Category
Cindy La Ferle on November 15th, 2012
And there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own.” — Mary Oliver
In my workshops for new writers, we often discuss the importance of finding or developing a “voice.” As William Zinsser points out, it’s as simple (or as difficult) as this: Your voice is who you are.
Early on, most of us hear a cacophony of inner critics and advisers inside our heads — former teachers, co-workers, neighbors, spiritual directors, family members, and friends. Which makes it hard to distinguish between what others expect of us and what’s in our own hearts.
Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” gives us clues along the way. It’s one of my favorite tributes to the authentic life — and it brings shivers of recognition each time I read it aloud in class. –CL
By Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations;
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.
– Reprinted from New and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press); 1992
– Top photo by Cindy La Ferle; taken at the Grand Rapids Museum during ArtPrize 2011. –
Cindy La Ferle on October 27th, 2012
The only people with whom you should try to get even are those who have helped you. ~John E. Southard
Everyone who’s ever launched a career — especially a career in a competitive field — knows that you need at least one supportive boss who believes in your goals and dreams. Which is why I’m so grateful to have worked for several terrific editors who helped shape my writing life.
Two in particular are Mike Beeson (left in the photo) and John Schultz, both former editors at Royal Oak’s Daily Tribune. How lucky I was to find them at a newspaper office in my own hometown. In 1985, John was the first to give me a regular column, a weekly small business feature that introduced me to countless shops, galleries, and restaurants in our community. While I wrote many stories for the Trib in those days, from theater reviews to news items, my weekly business column taught me how to meet tight deadlines while scouting new story ideas.
When I first started writing for Mike, he had just replaced entertainment editor Ray Serafin. Later on, Mike took over the paper’s lifestyles section and made my biggest dream a reality: He offered me a coveted column space in the Sunday paper — and told me I could write about any family topic that struck my interest. In 1998, my weekly “Life Lines” column won a first place award for local columns in the Michigan Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest. Several of those columns are reprinted in Writing Home, my collection of essays and columns.
All of this came tumbling back when my husband snapped the photo, above, at the opening of his first one-man show at the Lido Gallery in Birmingham last night (Oct. 26).
John, who co-authored a book on the history of Royal Oak last year, currently works as a copy editor at Hour Media. Newly retired from the Trib, Mike now has time to travel and visit his new grandchild.
Chatting about the “old days” with John and Mike, I also felt a rush of nostalgia for all the times I had to drive downtown to deliver my finished articles to the Trib’s editorial offices. Back then — before we relied on the Internet — editors and writers discussed assignments on the phone, face-to-face at the office, or over a burger at lunch. It wasn’t nearly as quick or convenient as sending a story via email, of course. But in the process, we forged friendships that have endured despite several career moves and changes. I wouldn’t trade those days — and everything I learned — for anything. – CL
Cindy La Ferle on September 5th, 2012
The act of putting pen to paper encourages pause for thought; this in turn makes us think more deeply about life, which helps us regain our equilibrium.” ~Norbet Platt
“WRITE THE STORIES OF YOUR LIFE” at the Royal Oak Public Library, Royal Oak, MI
October 4, 11, and 18, from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m.
Everyone has at least one memoir waiting to be written. My three-week introductory workshop is designed to help new writers, whether you’re interested in crafting a book-length memoir or short personal essays. Throughout the program, we’ll explore several techniques for triggering your memories and turning them into memoir.
This workshop is offered free to the public but registration is required. Please keep in mind that your attendance on the first night of this three-week program is essential. The first class serves as the foundation for the next two nights — and there won’t be an opportunity to review what you missed.
We’ll be writing in class, so please bring your pen and notebook or a laptop. To reserve your seat: Please visit the Royal Oak Public Library Web site or phone: 248-246-3727. Copies of my own memoir, Writing Home, will be available at a generous discount for workshop students at the end of each session.
For regular announcements of my workshops, please “like” my Facebook author page: Cindy La Ferle’s Home Office and Blog.
Illustration: A detail from an altered book, by Cindy La Ferle
Cindy La Ferle on August 23rd, 2012
Criticism is something one can avoid by saying nothing and doing nothing.” — Aristotle
Seven years after its publication, my collection of essays on home and family topics scored its first negative review on Amazon.
The reviewer, who identified herself as a copywriter and was brave enough to include her full name and city of residence, found my writing style “rather bland” and my topics “so-so” or uninteresting. Ouch.
Making its abrupt appearance in my “Most Recent Reviews” column, the two-star review splashed a small but indelible stain on my Amazon page. Never mind that the other reviews, many of which were written by fans of my long-running newspaper columns, were five-star praise fests. Never mind that the book had already won several press awards.
And never mind than I’ve been writing professionally since 1984 and should be accustomed to criticism (not to mention rejection letters) by now.
That one crummy review from a copywriter in Atlanta threw me into a ridiculous dark-blue funk that lasted a couple of days. In a fit of self-doubt, I even grabbed a copy of my book and scanned several pages for incriminating evidence of “blandness” and boring topics.
In any event, the review provided a much-needed lesson in humility. But before I could cool off — and yes, I did cool off — I had to Google the reviewer’s name. I had to figure out how she’d managed to stumble on my seven-year-old book — and why she felt compelled to knock it down a few stars. I was half tempted to email her after discovering we had a loose connection through a professional writing group.
Instead, I did what most writers do when they realize they’ve been spending too much time alone with their computers: I turned to a few trusted colleagues who always know how to set me straight.
“Bad reviews are part of the risk of getting our work published,” one of my editor-pals reminded me. “And that’s why we all need to keep growing thicker skin.” In other words, if we’re going to put our stuff out there, we must learn to accept a few hurled tomatoes along with the roses and the press awards. Furthermore, if we’re willing to listen up, one piece of honest criticism can do more to improve our game than a dozen accolades.
Mean-spirited criticism is more about the critic and less about the work under fire.”
The crappy review also led to an online discussion about how to take (and give) criticism — an invaluable skill, no matter what your profession. To master this skill, you must know the difference between constructive criticism and mean-spirited criticism.
For starters, constructive criticism is always very specific. It includes concrete examples of what didn’t work along with reasons why the reviewer thinks your writing fell short. Even if it’s unsolicited and painful, constructive criticism can be a terrific learning tool.
On the other hand, mean-spirited criticism (or “sniping”) is more about the critic and less about the work under fire. Dead giveaway: The word “I” appears too often throughout the review or critique. “I don’t like Hemingway’s writing,” for example, isn’t nearly as specific and informative as “Hemingway overplays the declarative sentence.”
Mean-spirited criticism might be the product of a foul mood or professional envy. Or maybe the critic doesn’t share your passion, in which case your work doesn’t necessarily fall short, or stink.
The reviewer who dissed my book didn’t cite examples of what irked her, nor did she suggest what I could have done to meet her standards. But she got me thinking about why I failed to engage or entertain her.
And that’s why a bad review can be an unexpected gift or a wake-up call. If we’ve been writing and publishing for a while, especially, a negative review challenges us to keep improving and refining our craft. Or, at the very least, to stop being so complacent.
William Faulkner once said that real writers and artists “don’t have time to listen to the critics. The ones who want to be writers read the reviews, and the ones who want to write don’t have the time to read reviews.” And I suppose there’s some truth in that.
Still, it’s perfectly normal to feel bruised after getting hit with a rotten review. Scores of authors who are far more prolific than I am still wince when they get negative press. Or, as Danielle Steel once put it, “A bad review is like baking a cake with all the best ingredients and having someone sit on it.”
All said and done, serious writers get over it, then gather their new “ingredients” and get back to work. — Cindy La Ferle
– Detail from an altered book collage by Cindy La Ferle –
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Cindy La Ferle on July 24th, 2012
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 –