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Michelle's Musings

Back to School, Again!

I cannot wrap my head around the fact that fall (and dare I say, the holiday season?) is nigh. I just read something about planning for holiday decorations and... Whoa! I'm still basking in warm summer days. But what really reinforces the advent of fall is that most kids are back to school, including me!


I enrolled in three weekly online writing classes that started at the beginning of the month. Granted, these are non-certificate courses designed for the—ahem—more mature writer offered through a local college extension program. But the nice thing about an adult audience is the presence of several knowledgeable editors and writers who provide valuable feedback to experienced as well as up-and-coming writers.


I re-enrolled into a revision writing workshop that I participated in this past spring along with a literary style workshop, mainly to contrast the two. The revision workshop focuses on feedback for works in progress while the literary style workshop focuses on writing prompts to stimulate new writing. The third course is a class on poetry.


I've recently posted that I've not been a huge fan of poetry, but last spring, at the behest of our instructor, I experimented during National Poetry Month (April). Surprisingly, I found the shorter format amenable to some of my writing ideas for which I'd not yet found a venue. After feedback from the class, I reworked my poem and submitted it, along with an additional poem, to a variety of contests and anthologies. I also subscribed to an email newsletter than drops one poem each day; however, I'm not a fan of most of what I've received. While I understand interpretation and appreciation of a poem require at least three passes, I find the language rambling and flowery most of the time. It feels as if some poets throw together a bunch of miscellaneous words to make their work appear literary.


I know this sounds ass-backward, but as I wait to hear back about my entries (and I'm perfectly prepared to accept rejections), I thought I'd learn more about what goes into composing a great poem by taking a class. While the genre remains a bit of an enigma for me, I'm anxious to see my inner Shakespeare awakened.

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I Tried It, and I Like It

I've never been a huge fan of poetry, especially that which requires a considerable amount of effort to parse and understand. Much of what I've recently read seems abstract, and I don't like to work so hard to find the definitive message in what I'm reading. Nevertheless, as a writer, I feel a little guilty about ignoring an entire genre of work.


In a recent writing workshop, our instructor, an award-winning poet, informed the class that a poem must be read at least three times before its true meaning is appreciated. Even then, interpretation is subjective. For National Poetry Month (April), he assigned different styles of poems to read, and we were then asked to emulate one of those styles and produce a poem of our own—a task to which I was not endeared. Almost in protest, I wrote two poems based on a memoir excerpt I'd been working on with the mindset that just about anyone can write poetry. One version rhymed and the other conformed to my interpretation of free verse or narrative poetry.


I was anxious to see which version my classmates preferred. Somewhat split in their partiality to one over the other, they noted a slight preference for the free verse format. To my surprise, a few classmates also found my work somewhat literary. Perhaps I received this accolade because I used a couple of Early Modern English terms for reasons not entirely clear to me. Though I haven't read Shakespeare in eons, perhaps my use of Early Modern English was a latent manifestation of a poetic voice I didn't know I had.


The free verse version happened to be my favorite as well because composing it felt similar to writing a short story. I enjoyed the hunt for a choice selection of words; but what surprised me most was my dogged determination to write two distinct forms of poetry. Enamored with the process, I even joked with my instructor about being a poetry convert. Amused, he shared how he ended up becoming a poet in a similarly serendipitous fashion. He also encouraged us to submit our poems to anthologies.


Armed with feedback from my classmates and a bit of inspired motivation, I revised my free verse version and submitted it to a few contests and anthologies. So far, I've received one rejection out of about six submissions. However, I'm excited to have discovered an additional creative outlet that seems to work well for some of my darker stories. Dare I say that I've already written another poem and researched additional submission venues?


I guess the moral of this story is, Try it—you might like it. Perhaps I'll add poetry to my list of writing genres!

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Collaboration A Success!

Last month, I blogged about a project for BIPOC creatives that entailed collaboration between four pairs of writers and choreographers in which I participated. Left to our own devices to come up with a product, we previewed our work before a live audience in an art gallery setting this past weekend. Because this showcase was billed as a "performance," I thought my participation would be minimal. However, a week before the event I learned that not only would I, your average reclusive writer, be an integral player, but my presence was requested for the question-and-answer session that followed.


After introductions by the project leader to a nearly sold-out audience, I ended up opening the show! I began with a synopsis of how I and my choreographer partner developed our project goals. I then read an excerpt from a personal essay that formed the nidus of my partner's movement concept. Interestingly, none of the collaboration teams knew how the other three teams had designed their projects, and we all ended up presenting a unique performance. The other teams consisted of a dancer and lyricist who sang a beautifully haunting a cappella solo as her dancer performed; a writer who recited a moving poem inspired by watching his two dance partners perform over two practice sessions; and a playwright and choreographer who switched roles and encouraged audience participation to devise words and movement based on artwork displayed on the venue's walls.


After our performances, the project director interviewed the collaborators, and then opened the question-and-answer session to the audience. When invited to expand upon the stimulus for our project ideas, I told of how I pulled out an incomplete manuscript for which I had no tangible venue of publication—a piece that spoke to my first encounters with racism during my preteen years. In contemplating this audience member's question, it dawned on me that my explanation was the exact motivation behind the project's theme—to give voice to creatives who are often marginalized because their work may not fit the status quo.


My partner reiterated his intent to develop a solo dance performance based on my writing to incorporate into his studio's 15th anniversary celebration next spring. So I'm currently brainstorming on something we can workshop together over the next several months.


Perhaps because of the unexpected ovation I received for my reading, but also because the audience seemed fairly impressed with our collective efforts, the evening showcase of our joint works exceeded my expectations. The freedom to express my sentiments was liberating, and I look forward to wherever this collaboration takes me.

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A Unique Opportunity to Collaborate

A few months ago, a professional dancer and choreographer reached out to me at the behest of a member of one of my writing communities to inquire if I would be willing to participate in a project funded by the writers organization. The project entails collaboration between BIPOC choreographers and writers and need not be completed by the designated performance date, as the emphasis is more on the collaborative process.


Puzzled about what would be expected of me, I asked whether I was to watch a dance routine and then write something based on that performance, or write a piece that would provide inspiration for the show. To my surprise, the specifics of the collaboration were left entirely to the participants.


Given my unfamiliarity with this concept, I did a little research; I found nothing to inform me about what might be involved. Given that my writers organization funded this program, I considered that my writing might be the nidus for the collaboration. Intrigued by the idea of two distinct creative types working together, I agreed to a preliminary meeting with the artistic director of a dance theatre company. Initially, I feared that my lack of a complete understanding of what the proposal entailed might lead the director to shy away from working with me—a fear I attribute to the imposter syndrome. Within the first half-hour, however, it became clear that he and I share a lot of commonalities in our backgrounds.


The director wants my writing to form "the inspiration for the movement." He's fond of "the spoken word," and he says he has no intention of critiquing my writing (imagine that!). The subject matter and format would be my choice, and he'd even welcome my suggestions for accompanying music. Additionally, he wishes to see our project through to its final performance under the auspices of his production company.


It became clear during the meeting that the stipend does not cover a completed project, but I saw this opportunity as one to rework an incomplete piece I'd filed away for a future time. After what turned into a two hour meeting, the artistic director and I agreed to proceed with the collaboration and parted quite energized at the prospect of what we could develop together. Currently, he has reviewed my submission draft and is motivated to finalize the project. We will meet again to incorporate his contribution in anticipation of the performance date set for next month. So stay tuned for what I hope to be an exciting update!

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Truth in Memoir

Since last month's post, I dug a little deeper into the differences between memoir and autofiction. My main concern was maintaining the truthfulness of memoir in spite of the absence of perfect recall. I was surprised to learn in my writing revision class that changing my characters' names introduces an element of fiction. Yet some reputable memoirists recommend doing so when needed for privacy concerns and protection from liability.


Depending on whom you talk to, you'll get diametrically opposed opinions on just how much liberty, if any, one can take in writing memoir. The concept of fictionalizing an autobiography (autofiction) is an intriguing one, especially in cases where memory recall is difficult. A key benefit with autofiction is the author can describe intimate or deeply personal experiences which might otherwise make them feel shamed by intolerant members of society. Since the emotional impact of a story may be more significant than its factual basis, autofiction appears to serve a purpose here. However, some writing experts believe autofiction should not be a separate genre.


I recently read We are Bridges: A Memoir wherein author, Cassandra Lane, imagined stories about her ancestors that represented her approximation of the environment in which they most likely existed. She was careful to weave into her narrative the fact that her recall was lacking or that certain specifics were unknown to her. Much of what she portrays as an unreliable narrator is speculation. Yet, her book title includes the word "memoir."


When it comes to writing about one's lived experiences, privacy is a priority for those still alive. I plan to stay with my first inclination to change names where necessary, prefaced with a disclaimer somewhere in the introductory pages. I'm not writing a revenge story, therefore, I'm not concerned about others being offended to the extent they'd want to sue me. However, I acknowledge that I have made and will make mistakes with my recall, and I plan to indicate when it might differ from that of others so the reader can trust that I'm delivering an honest product.


As a lifelong student, my perspective is not a rigid, hard-lined synopsis of everything I've digested. In fact, my most important take is that rules are meant to bend. To me, it's a matter of degrees. I'm writing my memoir as an example of journey, growth, and renewal that others may find useful for their lives now and in the future. My perceptions are my truth. If I stay true to myself, my story, and my readers' expectations for a resonating message, then I will be successful.

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When is Truth not Truth?

In a recent post, I mentioned I was finalizing an excerpt of my memoir-in-progress for submission to my revision writers class. While our focus at the time was creative nonfiction, our instructor commented on the current trend toward fictionalizing memoir and the efforts underway to reverse the trend. He asserted that whenever a fictional component is introduced, such as in the reconstruction of dialogue that took place years or even decades earlier, the memoir work should be deemed fiction. This statement threw me for a loop.


According to Roy Peter Clark's essay "How Truthful are Memoirs?" writers should not use "invented dialogue…. Any words in quotation marks must be the result of a) written documents such as trial transcripts, or b) words recorded directly by the writer or some other reliable source. Remembered conversations—especially from the distant past—should be rendered with another form of simple punctuation such as indented dashes."


The use of indented dashes –like this- for reported speech (vs. direct speech) aims to "relieve the burden of exactness," according to my instructor who also advised that the use of fictitious names for fear of retribution is unwarranted if the writer wishes to stay true to the genre of nonfiction. He suggested using an initial or a description of the person's natural status (e.g. "the short woman") or their role (e.g. "the physician") instead in those cases where a character's real name can or should not be used. My inclination had been to place a disclaimer at the beginning of the work to notify the reader of my use of made-up names and to convey transparency as to my standards and narrative methods. However, inaccurate dialogue, the class was told, holds greater potential for threats of lawsuits against the author than does the use of a real name.


Just when I was at the height of confusion, our class instructor introduced the concept of autofiction, short for autobiographical fiction. Defined as a work of truth that combines elements of autobiography with fiction in which the author is the main character, the writer recreates the world according to their experiences without altering or falsifying the facts. Thus, the story often reads as a first-person account of the author's life.


Curious to get additional feedback on the use of recalled information, I polled members of a writing association to which I belong to determine if others were under the same impression as I about writing memoir, specifically with regard to the use of quotation marks for dialogue when the author's recall is not exact but represents a best approximation and conveys the factual essence of what the quoted individual previously said. Most respondents agreed: As long as the author is writing their truth as they remember it, the work could be deemed memoir.


Hardly anyone has a photographic memory. Dialogue, backstory, and narration from events that happened decades earlier are often a bit fuzzy in their recollection. I still find the distinctions between memoir and autofiction somewhat ambiguous. For next month's post, I'll delve deeper into this subject. Stay tuned!

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Diversity in the Publishing World

I was all set to write a post about my first month in my new "revision writers" class when I opened my email inbox and read a community post from one of the writers organizations to which I belong. The author began by stating that his post would likely be seen as inflammatory, but he felt compelled to write it anyway. He complained about the solicitation of BIPOC authors by some writing contests and publications, which he considers illegal racial discrimination against White writers. A few sympathetic responses from those who also felt illegally discriminated against followed. And I thought, here we go again!


A member of this same writers organization who happens to be White provided a well-written and substantiated mini history lesson by way of a long response that laid out statistics and references regarding racial disparities in the publishing world easily found online. Writers of color already know that works centered on characters of color have not historically resonated with the predominantly White industry. But not everyone believes this to be the case.


In recent years, several public and private organizations have developed or enhanced non-discrimination policies. Sadly, I don't think many minds are changed by the truths of members of marginalized communities despite the fact that implementation of diversity and inclusion strategies still leave the publishing industry overwhelmingly dominated by Whites. And I'm not sure requiring folks to undergo "training" is all that effective. While some may find such training enlightening, others grow even more resentful toward underrepresented communities. While the practice may help provide context for those who seek enlightenment, I'm of the opinion that such change must come from within.


It saddens and distresses me to see members of a respected writers organization profess their animosity toward BIPOC communities and those who support them. These sentiments leave me feeling as though I'm dealing with a hostile work environment. Some of us would like to think that writers are creative types with open minds and a deep interest in learning. Perhaps this concept is more fiction than nonfiction.


Breaking out in the industry is difficult enough. It would be nice if we all supported one another with positive energy.

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Back to School

I'm so excited to be back in school! I just enrolled in a spring semester creative writing course through an extension program of a local community college. When I first learned of this offering, the class had already filled. However, I reached out to the instructor and asked to be wait-listed in case of a cancellation. Turns out, additional slots were added only a few days prior to the February 1 start date. After navigating a most difficult online registration process (perhaps due to website issues), I registered as a new student, got my student ID, and signed up for the class with one day to spare.


The course consists of a weekly lecture and revision workshop conducted entirely online and at no cost. (The instructor was quick to point out that a class of this scope and nature offered by a writers' organization would more than likely entail a fee.) The agenda is geared to the more "mature" writer who may or may not have much formal training, with no credit or certificate offered. I suspect, however, the bulk of enrollees are experienced writers.


The course covers several genres and requires a commitment of five hours per week. By design, the submission process is akin to that of the "real world." To have your work evaluated, you must submit at least three days in advance with proper formatting, but not all submissions are accepted.


Thus far, I've attended two sessions, and I'm impressed that the instructor (an award-winning poet) is on top of his game. The first class was more of an introduction, but the second session consisted of a lesson and a critique session wherein authors read their work aloud, after which other students offered feedback. At the conclusion, writers whose submissions were discussed commented on the feedback. I find that having the author read their work to an audience of more than 40 is useful for the following reasons: The writer has a good sense of where they wish to place intonations for emphasis and flow; they become more comfortable reading their work to an audience; and, more critically, reading one's work aloud is a tried-and-true method for finding problem areas not otherwise noticed. I plan to read my work aloud prior to submission.


I'm thrilled to stumble upon a community of like-minded writers eager to provide and receive constructive criticism for their works in progress. The instructor plans to focus on creative non-fiction for the next few sessions, and I intend to submit a memoir excerpt. I anticipate this new resource will help move my writing forward. And as an added bonus, I now qualify for student discounts—a winning situation all around!

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Going There

As much as I love writing, I'm finding it difficult to sit down for more than an hour at a time to write my memoir. While the process is cathartic to an extent, dredging up lots of emotional content also leaves me spent. Unfortunately, I have significant blocks in my recall; but as I keep pressing ahead, repressed memory sneaks to the forefront of my consciousness, leaving me surprised to learn that some elements of my upbringing were worse than I initially thought.


Even after taking a break, I find myself falling back to old habits of procrastination because of my reluctance to dig deep and really "go there." Sometimes my recollections are so vivid I see certain scenes as though they were taking place right before my eyes. I recently attended a lecture via Zoom that addressed caring for the psyche when writing emotionally charged material in which the speaker suggested memoirists pay attention to emotional cues and take frequent breaks, even if doing so results in a shorter than usual writing session.


I feel less productive with shorter sessions; however, some of those resurfaced memories provide an almost exponentially greater amount of inspiration to write (which is manna for any writer). Another positive is the inherent therapeutic benefit as well as the growing ease with which I'm able to identify my true sentiments about the chaos that was my early years. I'm more comfortable with being honest about those feelings even when they reveal my own prejudices and vulnerabilities.


Truthfulness is a critical component of memoir writing. While none of us has had the perfect upbringing, it is in the discovery of and reckoning with my truth that I find motivation to keep writing and, ultimately, conclude with a satisfying transformation.

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Even Schmucks Have an Inner Voice


Guidelines for good writing are found in numerous how-to books and blogs, but not all are steadfast. In fact, the more rules I come across, the more I realize how much heterogeneity exists. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to crafting the ultimate masterpiece. And so, I'm on the cusp of going a little rogue on methods and techniques and steering more toward feel and intuition. While you and I know that flying by the seat of one's pants does not guarantee success, I need to free myself from mechanistic self-edits that mire me in stagnation to the detriment of my creativity. In the spirit of simplicity, therefore, I'm going to ease up on myself a bit by narrowing my tricks of the trade to four goals.


I just alluded to the first goal, which is to spew your thoughts and ideas onto the page without concern for the editorial process. Call it brainstorming or free-association; the point is to throw the rules of writing out the window and get something down on paper without regard to the minutia of self-correction. If you're a bit anal like I am, though, this task is easier said than done. If correct-as-you-go works for you, by all means, keep at it. But I've got to do a better job of staying out of the quicksand quagmire of never-ending rumination.


The next goal is a more established dictum. I've written a monthly column for more than a decade in which I profile members of one of the writers groups to which I belong. I always ask my subjects for writerly advice to provide to others. Universally, they recommend reading as much as possible, preferably in your genre of choice, and writing everyday no matter how few words are produced. I strive to adhere to these principles, though I've been known to fall off the wagon from time to time.


Next, it's critical to have fresh eyes examine your work for those not-so-subtle errors you've become too myopic to see. Scientific studies document how we subconsciously insert words and letters while reading because our mind's eye tells us what we expect to see or read. If you're dyslexic, this is particularly problematic. Therefore, it's crucial to have someone else read your work to find errors you're unable to see. At the very least, set the work aside for several days (or longer) before attempting to reread it yourself.


Fourth, get comfortable with rejection. When I see poorly written and seemingly unedited contest or anthology submissions chosen over my work, I realize that my issue is not necessarily a poor product. Perhaps it was the mindset or the genre preference of the contest judge, or their lack of diverse cultural awareness and interest. But it does help to review those winning pieces because I sometimes learn how I might improve my work.


I'm fully aware that certain projects (like writing a novel) are more successful if they follow a formulaic paradigm. But even then, many best-selling authors deviate from conventional norms of plot and character development or utilization of point of view. In my estimation, if a story is written well enough to get readers invested in the protagonist's journey and to evoke a lasting emotional response, the reader will keep turning the pages.


And, oh, did I mention luck? Most of us schmucks don't have fame, highly visible platforms, or reputable contacts in the literary world, so we're missing a leg-up there. But you never know when you're going to strike it lucky unless you try. By following your inner voice, you may be closer to success than you realize!

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