Secrets of a Successful Writers’ Group

Several years ago, Lisa, our writing group’s founder, tried to quit. She feared the realities of her treatment for stomach cancer (belching, gas, occasional gagging, and a backpack of liquid food that connected to a port in her stomach) were off-putting. She was also discouraged, because “she wasn’t contributing anything,” meaning that she didn’t have any writing to share with the group.

WordSisters

The WordSisters a few years ago — Brenda, Jill, Elizabeth, Ellen, Lisa, and Jean. Rose is behind the camera.

The other five members of the group listened, but as she talked, it was clear that thinking about writing gave her a break from thinking about her health, and she still enjoyed our company. One member suggested that we could all chime in with our own bodily noises if it would make Lisa feel more comfortable. We swiped away tears and laughed ourselves silly at that suggestion. Lisa agreed to stay involved in the group.

We support each other as writers.

That moment exemplifies the basic philosophy of our creative nonfiction writers’ group and why we’ve been together for 13 years: we meet to support each other as writers. Sometimes that goes beyond reacting to each other’s writing.

Besides giving each other feedback about writing projects, we also provide moral and tactical support:

  • Celebrating our publishing victories and sympathizing when someone’s work is rejected.
  • Sharing our grant proposals and writing award applications, even when we’re competing for the same grants and awards.
  • Offering support when a member’s personal life is trying.
  • Organizing our own writers’ retreats.
  • Launching a campaign to get Lisa published when she didn’t have the energy for submissions.
  • Attending each other’s public readings.
  • Organizing several extra-long review sessions to provide feedback on book manuscripts.
  • Recommending marketing and promotional ideas, most recently for Elizabeth’s House of Fire book launch.

Most of all, we believe in each other.

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A Fool’s Errand or a Worthy Risk?

I just submitted my memoir manuscript to a publisher. I sweated over every word of the query. I drafted the synopsis and revised it and revised it again so the narrator’s growth was woven into the plot. I fussed over the manuscript sample to make sure it was tight and engaging.

I believe in my book. If I didn’t think it was worthy, I wouldn’t have spent more than 10 years on it.

But as I read and reread my handiwork, doubt crept in. I thought, “Am I wasting my time? Will this book even appeal to the publisher?” I sent it off anyhow.

Next, I polished and fussed with my entry for a writing contest.

Once again, I was assailed by the same suspicion that this is a fool’s errand. I’ve entered that contest half a dozen times and haven’t won yet. Will this year be any different?

Some stubborn, optimistic part of me persists.

While working on these submissions, I countered my doubts with platitudes like, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t try.”

Then I questioned the platitudes. It’s ingrained in the American psyche to believe that you’ll succeed if you try hard enough. That isn’t always true. Sometimes you fail anyhow. Then you have to live with the failure and wonder if it’s your fault because you didn’t try hard enough. Huh?!? What maddening logic.

Americans also love noble failure and tell ourselves, “At least you tried.” That is comforting. Like many Americans, I do believe that it’s better to risk failure than to attempt nothing. Risk is scary, but safety is stifling.

Finally, I come back to Margaret Atwood’s sensible advice: “Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.”

I’m going to stop whining. As for the entries? Stay tuned.

Everything That Rises Must Converge

405My experience as a Loft Mentor Series speaker.

It had been going on for some time before I noticed. My daughter was choosing an adult out of the people milling about at the Loft Literary Center after the Mentor Series Reading, taking him or her by the hand, and leading the person to open floor space. Once there she generated a dance routine for the adult to follow. After their two-minute routine was complete, she released the adult back into the gathering and chose a new person. Each person learned and performed a never-done-before dance routine. My son followed along videotaping each jig.

Who is this girl? And what magnetism does she possess that adult men and women will willingly leave the fold (and food) to dance with her? Even Jerald Walker and Mark Anthony Rolo, acclaimed authors and mentors, followed her as did many others.
All I could do was stare and see if anyone needed saving. They didn’t. They were enjoying the girl.

At three-years old, this girl could not talk intelligibly. Part 3 of my memoir, House of Fire, speaks to this. Thank God for the goat, it begins. During one of our camping trips, both my partner Jody and I thought that the other person had the girl. When I understood that neither one of us did all I could think was, The girl can’t tell anyone her name, where she lives, or who her moms are. We sprinted back to the the animal pens, which was the last place we saw her. She and the white double-bearded goat stood in companionable silence, the goat chewing her cud, the little girl waiting for her mothers to return.

The girl was diagnosed with articulation disorder and on two occasions we were asked by the school district to have her tested for autism. Jody and I refused. We were afraid she’d be mislabeled.

I mentioned this to a fellow mentee on Friday night, told her that I was in awe of the girl. She said that the girl just needed the right fertilizer and that Jody and I provided it for her.

I think she’s right.

I thought about myself. How my life’s work has been to be visible, to stand and speak my truth.

All this love, this fertilizer, brought the very best out of the girl and me on Friday night, the night of my Loft mentorship reading.

I recalled a quote,

“Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Yellow tulips flowers. (3)[1]I did the only thing that I could do when we got home. I presented the girl with a bouquet of tulips that I was given. After all, she gave quite a performance.

“Whose belly did I come out of?”

dsc00095[1]July, 2013. My cell phone rang. I stepped out of the dining hall at Tomahawk Scout Reservation, in Northwestern Wisconsin, wove through dozens of 10-year old Cub Scouts to reach the flagpole. “Hold on, hold on,” I said to the caller. I looked up to the sky hoping that a satellite would keep us connected. Jerod Santek from the Loft Literary Center was on the other end saying that I had won the 2013-2014 Loft Mentor Series for Nonfiction. “Can you hear me?” he said. I could. But after submitting to the competition for over ten years and being a finalist four times, I didn’t know what to say.

Friday, April 18th, at 7 p.m. I will read an excerpt from my memoir, HEALING FIRES.

“Whose belly did I come out of?” five-year old Crystel asks. “Yours or Mama Joey’s?” Milk spills from her spoon into her cereal bowl.

Thirty years of breaking free from the cycle of violence and discovering my true self prepare me to start my adoptive family. The challenge of creating a home of love, safety, and joy is tested by dysfunctional ghosts and dark memories from the Wisconsin farm where I was raised.

It’s the culmination of my work with mentors Mark Anthony Rolo as well as my work with Loft Literary Center instructor Mary Carroll Moore.

Also reading is Jerald Walker and my fellow mentee Pamela Schmid.imagesGECE7253

Mark Anthony is an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. His memoir MY MOTHER IS NOW EARTH won the 2012 Northeastern Minnesota Book Award and was nominated for a 2012 Minnesota Book Award.

When I opened Mark Anthony’s book and read his first lines, “My mother wants to be buried in fire. She races into a burning farmhouse, letting serpent flames twist around her legs,”my mouth fell open. I had submitted a writing sample that started with these words, “I’m on fire. I scream. I run. Flames chase me. I fall to the grass, slapping at my shoulders, my back, my side. Digging my shoulders into the ground, I pitch back and forth, back and forth. The fire follows.”

Under Mark Anthony’s tutelage, I have restructured my memoir to merge my past and present story just as spring water runoff flows to creeks and further downstream joins the river and finally the ocean that embodies us all.

Jerald Walker’s STREET SHADOWS: A MEMOIR OF RACE, REBELLION, AND REDEMPTION was also very influential. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Jerald is a recipient of the 2011 PEN New England/L.L.Winship Award for Nonfiction and his book was named a Best Memoir of the Year by Kirkus Reviews.

When I read Jerald Walker’s memoir, I finally understood how I could meld past and present together in my memoir. I studied his structure, counting the number of pages he used for his present story and then his past. I attempted to locate where he brought them both together. All the while, I resonated with his efforts to rise above the circumstances that he was born into.

7ac30fe0b702dd387b1f0ab4fcd06c36[1]Pamela is the creative nonfiction editor for Sleet magazine. Before receiving her M.F.A. degree from Hamline University, she spent more than a decade reporting and editing for the Star Tribune and the Associated Press.

Pamela says this about her memoir, “In MY BIG BOOK OF YEARNING, I chronicle my son’s arduous journey to speech and reflect on the way words empower and ensnare. I also try to untangle the threads of silence that took root in my family generations earlier, before giving rise to this little boy who desperately wanted to speak but could not.

”Pamela will be reading an excerpt that explores Eli’s fascination with music, and the way music can bridge the gap to speech. “When I sang, I became somebody else, someone more certain and sure. When it was just Eli and I and the songs, I felt the scales of a dragon on my back.”

Please mark your calendars for April 18th at 7 p.m.

Join Jerald, Pamela, and me as we read to you from our memoirs.

Loft Literary Center

1011 Washington Ave. S

Minneapolis, MN 55415

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Loft Mentor Series: Navigating the River Together

Mark Anthony Rolo

Mark Anthony Rolo

I had competed to be a Loft Mentor Series participant for many years, but now that I had been selected as a 2013-2014 Mentor Series Winner, a ‘so what’ attitude misted over me. I hate to even admit it because it sounds as if I didn’t care that I’d won. I did care. That’s why I paddled like heck against the wind and upstream to reach my destination. Now, that I had won, I pulled my paddles into the canoe, and drifted into the eddy.

Winning hadn’t changed me. My circumstances hadn’t changed. And, I had no idea if I would change during the Mentor Series. Nothing was promised.

All I knew is that I didn’t have to paddle anymore. That was unbelievable to me.

A potluck would be my introduction into the Mentor Series. I didn’t know any of the winners personally and I knew only one of the mentors, Mary Rockcastle.

Mary greeted the others and me as if she were an ambassador to the program. She has a knack for making a person feel good. If her gig as Hamline’s MFA writing program director doesn’t work out, she could be an emissary. She’s comfortable discussing a wide range of topics from colonoscopies to colloquiums. How can you not feel at home? Whatever nervousness I had in joining this potluck dissipated quickly.

Mark Anthony Rolo, nonfiction mentor, and Vanessa Ramos, Loft program manager, were the last to arrive.

Vanessa’s smile and effervescent personality is visceral. I was drawn toward her.

Waiting for Mark was nerve wracking. He was the person I would be working with for a year. I had read his book, felt as if I knew his past, which wasn’t that different from mine. But what if I didn’t like him? Do you like every writer you meet?

Mark isn’t hard to miss. He looks like his book jacket cover. He’s big. And, his dog is big.

What is it that some people possess that as soon as they walk into a room you feel at ease? It is almost as if their energy is forging the way and their physical self comes after. Mark has that characteristic.

Right away, I could tell Mark was accessible.

Mark Anthony Rolo and Rock

Mark Anthony Rolo and Rock

He didn’t put on airs that he was different from anyone in the room, and he had done his homework. He knew what piece of writing belonged to each of us. I made a quick note to myself to get my paddles in the water because I was about to be left in the eddy while he and others traveled on. I hadn’t read anyone’s work.

All of a sudden, I knew what the Mentor Series was about. It was about learning, supporting, and paddling to the next marker. People who could help me get there surrounded me. I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t going against the wind. I wasn’t going upstream. Instead, I was embraced by other canoeists and we could navigate the river together.