These past few weeks have been busy ones for me with several friends launching and promoting their latest works.
First came Marc Aronson’s If Stones Could Speak. Then the joyous hullabaloo shared by all The Writers Circle over Stuart Lutz’s The Last Leaf. You all heard from Susan Barr-Toman yesterday and will hopefully make it to her event next Friday at Words. But there are three other critical events that I cannot fail to mention, given that two are for one of my oldest and dearest writing friends and the third is for one of my newest and dearest.
Don’t miss Stephanie Cowell signing at Watchung Booksellers this Saturday, May 1, from 1:00-2:00 PM and at Words on Thursday, May 13 for a reading at 7:30 PM. The Boston Globe calls her new novel, Claude & Camille, “nothing short of masterful.” Stephanie and I have known each other for over twenty years (scary to write that!) and in several very concrete ways she was instrumental in my ever being able to call myself a professional writer. I’m honored to have such a loyal, generous and talented friend and can’t wait to celebrate her latest novel.
One of my newest dear friends, Marina Budhos, shares a passion for rich, complex writing and the challenging juggle of career and family. So I’m taking my eldest, who is good friends with her son, to the launch of her latest young adult novel, Tell Us We’re Home. She’ll be reading this Sunday, May 2, 2:00 PM, again at Words.
Come and join the celebrations!
I am not a poet. I would never claim to be. If writing were music, I prefer to play conductor to soloist. My fiction would be a symphony, not a piece for solo piano. But the craft of a prose writer also involves cadences, subtle pauses for thought, deeper undercurrents and expressions that run just beneath the written words. There is a great deal that all of us can learn from poetry, particularly brevity (something that obviously escapes me at times in these blog posts!).
Since 1996, the month of April has been National Poetry Month. I was reminded of this when my third grader came home with an assignment to pick and memorize a poem for school.
Almost simultaneously came a scattering of poetry messages to my inbox: yesterday on NPR: ‘Who I Am’: Poetry Not Wasted On The Young from which I discovered “Arithmetic” by Carl Sandburg, a good one for my son, though I’m doing my best to reserve judgment at least until he’s read it.
Poetry is immediate. In just a few short lines, a well-wrought poem can raise the emotions of visceral experience. It can share the commonality of human existence – sorrow or elation, melancholy in the passage of time, humor, guilt, irony. It can draw the shape of an entire character, the journey of a complex life. It is truly amazing that such breadth and complexity can be twisted into such an incredibly compact creation.
When I read poetry, I am always anxious for that heart-tapping “ah-ha” when the message of the poem comes breathlessly clear to me. Inevitably I read a poem once, twice, three times, then return to it again over years.
I remember attending poetry readings at the 92nd Street Y in New York City where the poets read slowly, purposefully without inflection, but always – always read their poems twice as if the repetition would remove any lingering veil from their richly insightful meanings.
And for nearly a decade, I’ve forgone the pleasure of attending The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, a biennial event that I recall with much passion for the freedom of my pre-motherhood days, when my husband and I strolled from tent to church to woody grove at Waterloo Village, New Jersey.
This year, The Poetry Festival is moving to Newark. And I think my boys are just old enough that I might risk dragging them along. I remember first discovering the festival from a documentary by Bill Moyers in the early 1990s. In a recent redux, Bill Moyers Journal revisited the festival as I remember it. Check out the wonderful video on PBS’s website, though I wasn’t able to embed the code to post it directly here: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/03062009/watch3.html.
Besides the glory of the greatest works of poetry presented in our own backyard, we in New Jersey have access to countless offerings in New York City. Another great annual event – PEN World Voices – starts next Monday and runs until Sunday, May 2. I have always loved both PEN’s festival and mission to draw attention to the vast body of world literature and to promote freedom of speech in countries where authors are at risk to do what we all do freely every day.
American contemporary literature suffers from chronic naval-gazing, an almost isolationist self-importance that frequently ignores the wider world. PEN’s World Voices Festival includes writers that are unfamiliar to most of us, but whose writings have affected the broader society of global readers and bring a taste and perspective that’s as intriguing as it is unfamiliar.
It reminds me of the scents of cumin, curry and sweet tamarind sauce, the first time ever in my life I smelled or tasted Indian food. It was at the apartment of my friend Swati Dasgupta. We were seven years old and everything about her life was exotic and new – her mother wrapped in silken saris with a red dot on her forehead, their magical appearance in my dull Massachusetts community from someplace halfway around the world. It opened my eyes to new magical possibilities. From that moment I was hooked. Imagine if I’d never tasted anything but hamburgers?
If you have time, take a taste at one of these incredible festivals. You never know where your imagination, your writing or your life might take you.
In anticipation of Stuart Lutz’s book launch party tomorrow night – a Writers Circle first! – I feel compelled more than ever to emphasize the need for a writers community. This extends beyond our own small but growing circle to embrace family, friends, and hopefully an enlarging group of readers who find our work, like it and share it with others.
Writers have always been notoriously solitary characters. We work in isolation, sometimes with only the company of a cat (like the one peering out from behind my computer screen right now). Our stories and characters speak inside our heads. We carry them around with us, an ongoing but invisible conversation that feeds us but also removes us from the immediacy of human contact. Sometimes the only sounds that reverberate in my office throughout the day are the dull clacks of my overused keyboard.
Making direct contact these days is vital, both in the creation of a writer’s work and as the finished product reaches for an audience. I have been privileged to work with published peers and struggling first-time writers alike, delving deeply into the creative process, poking, nudging and plucking to find the best way a novel, memoir or book proposal should be shaped. And I’ve relied on peers and confidantes to do the same for me.
Once a book is ready for market, another kind of community steps in. This blog has already seen the contributions of authors Michelle Cameron and Stuart Lutz. I guarantee you’ll see more in the near future. (One’s already in the wings awaiting the launch of my dear friend Stephanie Cowell‘s latest novel, Claude & Camille.)
These “visits” are all part of “blog tours” – the best and sometimes only way authors have found to harness their own destiny in the supersaturated, dwindling book market. Amidst the bewildering churn of digital media, most authors get little or no publisher support. They either hire a costly publicist with generally mixed results or ambitiously go it on their own.
Back in the good old days (like in 2006 when my novel The Thrall’s Tale first came out), publishers still sent a few select authors on the road for a formal book tour. The intention back then was to meet and greet. Publishers were usually less concerned with gathering a receptive audience anxious to hear the author read aloud than with the brisk glad-handing authors shared with favored booksellers who, charmed by the mere appearance of a living, breathing author in their stores, would feel compelled to hand-sell the debut novel, memoir or self-help book to their customers.
I suppose these meet-and-greets were effective in their day. But my tour experience was one of disappointment descending into depression. Try as these lovely booksellers might to draw a crowd, my events were no match for the Superbowl, no draw against the wiles of a violent Seattle rainstorm. The best attended events I had were in towns where I knew lots of friends. (Thank you, now defunct Coliseum Books and all my former colleagues from HBO right next door!) The final stop, in yet another ubiquitous superstore somewhere in the Midwest, amounted to reading to only two people and signing a stack of hardcovers in a back storeroom.
For this, I assure you, I was entirely grateful. Most authors got far less! What impact all this had on sales is anybody’s guess. But I couldn’t help feeling that the money the publisher spent on my excursion (which took me away from my five- and two-year-old for an unbearable two weeks) would’ve been better spent on a strategically targeted marketing scheme.
The way books are bought, sold and read these days is changing so rapidly that no publisher, publicist or lowly author has any idea how to reach out and grab that virtual outstretched hand. These days, an author tour more likely takes place via Skype, Facebook, Goodreads, Shewrites or on the blogs of other writers and friends. Making direct contact is becoming rare indeed. If these new digital forays are adequate substitutes is hard to tell. And although a web presence is absolutely mandatory, I have yet to hear from anyone whether the ROI of a book trailer (almost always paid for out of an author’s meager advance and conceived, written, and directed by him or her as well) is really worth the trouble or expense.
So with all our websites, Twitter tweets, Facebook posts and blogs, how is an author meant to reach out to real readers? And how do we break the wall of our own self-imposed and circumstance-inflicted isolation?
Some authors are touted for the D.I.Y. Book Tour, another way that we have tried to take our fates in hand. The overall experience seems less about selling books than about meeting people, sleeping on strangers’ couches, and listening to readers who never thought they’d even want to read our books. I’ve had the most glorious times in my hosts’ living rooms, listening and laughing to startled responses to my book as we sip wine and nibble cheese. I’ve spoken at endless gatherings where neighbors and friends who either hated or loved my work debated right in front of me their reasons. And I’ve come full circle, supporting my own friends and passing on the tradition to my children, as I did this past weekend at Marc Aronson’s reading in Maplewood. (Yes, that’s my youngest having his copy of If Stones Could Speak signed by the author!)
So I encourage all of you to come out tomorrow night and to go to the next reading of an author you know or don’t. Because in the end, we writers don’t often get to bask in the limelight. The few times we do stand in front of an audience are far more satisfying than a blog tour or a Skype talk because the hand shake, gentle pat on the back, and the applause are real.
Check it out! The Writers Circle blog tied for #15 on the 2010 Preditors & Editors Readers Poll!
I know it’s not #1, and I never expected it to be. But even reaching #15 in the overcrowded conversation that goes on every day on the web is impressive, especially because, as far as I’m concerned, the purpose of The Writers Circle is very personal, intimate, specific and REAL.
Most of you (those I’m aware of, anyway) are people I really know, see and work with face to face on a regular basis. That our community has managed to reach a broader audience signifies just how much we all long to connect, even across this vast digital “cloud”.
Each of you inspires my thoughts and directs my posts. As I leave our weekly meetings, I’m filled with ideas about how to best encourage your work, how to guide you in your efforts to express your thoughts and imaginings, and how to press you onward against the inevitable tide of other obligations and distractions.
Over the last four years, we’ve committed to each other. We’ve worked hard to nurture a safe, supportive community that exists and extends across multiple facets of our creative and personal lives. A perfect example is the collaboration of Stuart Lutz, Ross Minichiello and Sandra Joseph, all coming together to create a book trailer for Stuart’s upcoming release, The Last Leaf: Voices of History’s Last-Known Survivors.
I’m thinking of Mary Mann, editor of Maplewood Patch, who has pooled the writing talents of so many in our Circle, including Lois Cantwell, Marcia Worth, Elias Zwillenberg, Stuart Lutz and, yes, yours truly! (Is there anyone I missed?)
I’m thinking of our excitement over members’ achievements, with or without our help, like Chris Harder’s essays in Chicken Soup for the Soul and in The New York Times’ Motherlode; and Lori Sender‘s and Marcia Worth‘s many articles in The New York Times.
And I’m thinking of our holiday gatherings where we share food, company, work and laughter.
To me, you’ve all become part of my larger family. I’m proud to be among you, thrilled to cheer you on, more than willing to cry or even argue with you, and most honored to celebrate the successes as they come, paragraph by paragraph, day by day.
I started this blog as an extension of our work together – partly to maintain a public record of the many essays and articles I used to email to you. (And to save all that paper from the ones I used to copy and staple each week. Remember those days? And you all know how I HATE to kill trees!) Yesterday was exactly one year since I wrote my first post, so this small, formal recognition is a lovely first anniversary gift.
Blogging is an unusual opportunity for direct contact with a vast, unknowable audience. But too often I’ve seen it used as public journalling and wondered why anyone would want to world to know their most private thoughts. Perhaps it’s enough simply to be heard, as Carla Cantor (another one of our own!) details in her Psychology Today blog, Small Steps: Through Struggle Comes Strength.
Through The Writers Circle, I have found a purpose for my own blogging. Rather than blathering about my private trials and minor triumphs, I use this blog to gather the experiences and wisdom of many terrific writers and thinkers, and to share my own perspectives, hoping to help us all find the courage and discipline to continue with our work. For me, looking back at all my posts, it’s satisfying to realize how many times in the past I’ve had these thoughts and let them slip away into the ether. Yet now here they are – a record of our growth and progress together.
Thanks to all of you who voted and to all of you who write, read, struggle and share this journey. I’m thrilled to watch The Writers Circle as it grows and embraces a broader writing community. And to our readers and writers who join us in the “cloud”, I wish I could meet you face to face. Good writing. Thanks for traveling with us.
As an addendum to my last post, Shouting in a Crowd, be sure to read the wise advice of literary agent Nathan Bransford about, yes, promoting your work, but also knowing when enough is enough, focusing on what you’re best at and, most of all not, driving yourself absolutely crazy!
Written in support of Stuart Lutz, The Last Leaf: Voices of History’s Last-Known Survivors, Stephanie Cowell, Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet, and all my other friends who have, will, or long to be published.
What’s it like to be an author today? To be sure, the days of rarified literary isolation are over. Authors in the 21st century are expected to be our own biggest advertisement, shouting loudly and clearly from the highest height at the top of our lungs for attention, recognition and, most of all, sales.
No longer is publicity the realm of a professional publicist. Old school publicity methods, like press releases and pitch letters, are losing steam. Blogger Jonathan Fields lays out the new landscape in a strident but accurate gripe in The Huffington Post about the dismally ineffective methods of one unnamed career publicist whose pitch Fields immediately and repeatedly deleted as spam.
Truth be told – no publicist, for almost no amount of money, can dedicate the time, expertise, creativity, energy and intimate awareness of your work to properly promote the creation of your literary heart and soul. Any publicist assigned by a publisher, however well meaning and enthusiastic, is also working on several other authors’ books that are equally pressing (and hopefully just as worthy).
They will promise to do their best, but they will most likely follow a prescribed formula, reaching out to standard media outlets: newspapers (whose review sections have shrunk or disappeared), magazines (whose pages have literally halved to match their dwindling ad revenues), a short list of radio talk shows (God bless and keep you, NPR!), television morning shows (for that solid gold 60-second pitch), and of course, Oprah (ah, to live the dream!).
But beyond that list (which, by the way, nearly everyone uses), publicists simply don’t have time to handcraft a marketing and publicity scheme. Even if you hire someone, you might get a bit more attention, but the bang for your buck is mostly likely going to have to come from you.
Publishers know this and increasingly rely on it. Authors are expected to be expert entertainers, artful networkers, personable, presentable, articulate and with any luck – yes, it counts – attractive. Maybe even funny (no matter if our work is of a deadly serious nature).
Long before our books are ever in print, we find ourselves swimming in the ill-fitting publicist’s shoes, developing our websites, marketing materials, ads, booking library talks, readings and signings for our own mostly self-financed book tours. [The D.I.Y. Book Tour, NY Times, January 17, 2010] We blog for anyone out there who’ll let us. If given the opportunity, we will happily tap-dance naked in Times Square, if only someone would look our way.
How can it help but feel like we are all shouting into the same abyss – like the Grand Canyon itself lined with authors, actors, artists, musicians, dancers, playwrights, TV producers, video game creators, Ipod App developers (anyone I’ve missed?) begging for someone to notice our creation and make it the next big thing.
The likelihood that we’ll get any notice at all feels (is) pretty small, so when we get a little feedback, it’s as if we’ve won the Pulitzer. Yet our interaction with the public is no longer professional, it’s personal. There’s no packet of letters carefully screened by our editor or agent. Instead our inbox is laced with emails requesting advice, correcting our facts, critiquing our work, and once in a while – yes, bless them – praising our words. [The Perils of ‘Contact Me’, NY Times, January 10, 2010.]
We are expected to find time to tweet, social network and blog. We’re expected to be a part of the conversation. It’s a valid demand in the world where virtual socializing is more prevalent than face-to-face. But all of this takes incredible amounts of time. [Memoirist Vicki Forman on Book Publicity, http://lisaromeo.blogspot.com, January 19, 2010.]
Many writers I know simply give up hope of actually writing when they’re gearing up for the book launch. Beyond the strict reality that there are only 24 hours in the day, the effort to be so completely out-in-the-world contradicts the literary necessity of digging deeply inward. The two are incompatible. Better not to fight the split
Maybe it’s a good thing. Most authors I know bemoan their lonely state. (One reason I originally began teaching was, as many of you know, to be around humans other than my family for longer than the time it takes me to drop off or pick up my kids.)
But must the contrast be so extreme? And how many of us – savvy, articulate and ambitious as we are – are really equipped to take on this incredible burden?
Honestly, I’d love to hand over my publicity to someone else. I’d love to trust that it would take care of itself so I could sink down deep into my office chair and slip utterly into my newest tale.
But for all the work I put into my most recent creation, who better to sing its praises? Who better to honestly enthuse about the topic for which I sweated, cried and bled? Who better to know just where to find people with similar passions?
Writing is our agony and our joy. Sharing even that bit of experience draws us together with anyone else who struggles for rare rewards. Every time I cry into the abyss and hear something back, I know that, this time, it’s not an echo. Someone out there has really read and understood what I meant.
Finally, I know I’ve been heard.
Last Friday as a light sprinkle of snow drifted down, my friend and fellow author, Laurie Lico Albanese, accompanied me on my usual morning walk uphill.
Most of you know about my obsession with hiking, nature, and the South Mountain Reservation. Check out Laurie’s thoughts on our little adventure at her blog: My Big Walk: One Woman. One Year. One Thousand Miles.
Check out my latest on Maplewood Patch: OK, Let’s Talk About Those Deer.
I’m pleased to introduce our first guest blogger on The Writers Circle, historical novelist Michelle Cameron, the author of “The Fruit of Her Hands“.
“Connecting with Other Writers”
My son, a somewhat arrogant aspiring writer of 19, tells me that writing blog entries is going over to the Dark Side. And you don’t even want to hear what he thinks of Twitter. Or of me being on Facebook.
But he’s a college student whose social life centers around campus and classes. And he’s unusual among his friends because he doesn’t live with his thumbs perpetually fixed on his cell phone or completely immersed online. He doesn’t understand yet what it’s like to work in isolation from those who are passionate about what you care about.
I can mention writing at work only cautiously. My co-workers are not writers themselves and aren’t impressed with the struggle to get the words, the characters, the plot line right. My writing group (on hiatus right now) meets only every two weeks. While we dive headlong into the work we’re critiquing that day, and the words tumble forth as we discuss an aspect of writing that has bewildered us ― or that we’ve mastered ― there is a deafening silence between sessions.
So what’s left is the instant gratification of social media ― the quick, haiku-like pull of the 140-character Tweet, the specialized discussions of the Historical Novel Society or in the groups of shewrites.com. (If you haven’t heard of shewrites.com, you definitely want to check it out.) If I post an article about writing on Facebook, I’m certain to foster comments from my writer friends. If my profile status is “Stuck on this chapter,” my friends will respond asking me what’s wrong or counseling me to take a long walk to clear my head. Suddenly, there’s someone to talk to.
And using social media – even Twitter, which took me a long time to understand – can connect you in less virtual ways as well. It was because of a post in the Historical Novelist Society, for instance, that first introduced me to Judith and her writing. Another post, coming from the Women Who Write organization, a local women’s group, brought me to BooksNJ 2009 – and who should be standing there, but Judith, in the flesh. So we actually got to talk in person.
With my debut historical novel, THE FRUIT OF HER HANDS, just published by Pocket Books, social media has connected me to people I would never have had the chance to meet personally. It’s given me reviews in California and Israel, opportunities to speak in Boston, a place to stay in Washington, DC. A great portion of the blog tour I’m on right now came about due to my appeal to the historical novelists I talk to online. And while the jury is still out on whether or not the time I spend there will help actually sell books, there feels like there is a mild buzz building about the novel that couldn’t generally happen for a debut novelist. (If this is an illusion, let me keep it awhile longer.)
But, of course, there’s a seductive quality to all this chatter, a trap writers can fall into. It becomes compulsive, and I find myself wanting that fix several times a day. I have to be disciplined about how often I turn to these outlets. You can switch on the computer for “a quick check” and pick your head up considerably later, not knowing where the hours have gone. My writing time is limited and the last thing I want is to fritter my time away in something that feels productive but results in no actual work. Perhaps this is what my social butterfly of a son, who complains that there is no time for writing when he’s at college, is getting at when he shakes his head at my Twitter screen. “It’s going over to the Dark Side, mom,” he tells me. “Watch out for the Dark Side.”
Michelle Cameron’s The Fruit of Her Hands: the Story of Shira of Ashkenaz (Pocket Books, September 2009) is based on the life of the author’s thirteenth-century ancestor, Meir ben Baruch of Rothenberg, a renowned Jewish scholar of medieval Europe. Michelle lives in New Jersey with her husband and two college-age sons.