Workshop: Putting my work out there…

Posted in Workshop, Writing on April 23, 2011 by Melissa Henry

All you seasoned writers out there, I’m sure you’ve had your good and bad workshop experiences. Some of you may be like I was, just getting started with no understanding of what workshop entails. If you’re of the latter group, I hope my experiences will encourage you to get out there and find a workshop. If you’re of the former, hopefully I’ll send a few laughs your way and you’ll find yourself being wistfully nostalgic of your first workshop…

It’s difficult for me to comment objectively on the workshop experience, because my experiences are limited and I have few comparators. My first workshop was, perhaps, a unique experience.

Over three quarters, an entire academic year, a core group of us stuck it out through the three-part course. Having the same instructor and many of the same writers for a year, allowed us to really get into each other’s stories and build a good amount of trust. It was creative nonfiction, mostly memoir and many stories dealt with sensitive topics; trust was paramount. While I’m sure this sort of connection and camaraderie occurs in MFA programs everywhere, this class wasn’t part of an MFA program. So when you read this and other posts about my non-MFA program workshop, keep in mind this experience is likely a little different.

Workshop can be daunting to say the least. In the beginning, you are sitting in a room full of unknown personalities nervously making small-talk and hoping they won’t completely decimate your writing. It’s good to be nervous, nerves can help you put your best work out there, just don’t let it paralyze you.

During the first quarter, I definitely feigned having more confidence than I actually had. That’s just what you do. Much of the time it was: see an opportunity, hold your breath, and jump of the cliff. When we signed up to be workshop’d, I took one of the earliest dates. Better to just dive right in. When there was an opportunity to read a piece in class (horrible as that first piece was, now that I look at it), I did, shaky voice and all. When extra workshop dates opened up, I took a second shot. There is no doing it halfway, it’s all in or go home. I was all in.

When you take a workshop, the success of the class seems to be dependent upon two things:

1. Your instructor’s ability to keep everyone on track and control the mood of the feedback.

2. Your fellow writers and their investment in not only their own work, but the work of their peers.

What workshop really doesn’t depend upon:

To a large degree, workshop doesn’t necessarily depend upon how well you write but rather your ability receive feedback and better your work. This is easy to do if the correct tone is set.

I would think (hope) that the following would be true for any workshop:

Beyond simple participation, the most crucial aspects of a workshop course are respect for and generosity toward one another.  All feedback — written and verbal — must be provided in a constructive manner, with the intent of helping the author improve the work. Your goal is not to tell the author what she should be doing differently; your goal is to help the author understand how it feels to experience the work from a reader’s perspective. Two simple methods to ensure helpful and respectful feedback are to avoid value judgments, and to be as specific as possible.

We were encouraged to say things like:

On page X, I liked how you really grounded us in the scene by…

-On page X, the way you introduced the ——— character after ——— happened was effective because…

Then, towards the end, asking questions about the scene or story to highlight what might not be coming through for the reader:

I like the ——— character and would really like to hear more about him. How does he relate to the main character? I’d also like to see more…his mannerisms, physical characteristics, etc. and how he relates to the main character’s struggle.

So that’s how we began the class, a few guidelines and many jangling nerves. More on my first experience with feedback coming up…

Literary Immersion Therapy: Part 2

Posted in Getting Lit on April 16, 2011 by Melissa Henry

Let’s see if I can spit out the rest of this in one post…

1) LitQuake. You heard about this already so find one in your area or hit up another festival like it.

2) Local Independent Bookstores.

I can’t stress how much I value my local independent bookstores. Check out your local independent book retailers and if you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, check out some of my favorites. If I’ve missed some, please send me your local favorites!

Kepler’s is my “home bookstore,” I could live at Kepler’s Books. Not only have I heard everyone from Berkeley Breathed to Joyce Carol Oates at Kepler’s, I have also had the opportunity to participate in free workshops from publishing insiders like Alan Rinzler. So visit your local indie bookstore, see what events they have coming up, and buy something.

My other San Francisco Bay Area favorites: Book Passage (Corte Madera), The Booksmith (San Francisco), and City Lights Book Sellers and Publishers (San Francisco).  Of course, if you ever find yourself in New York: The Strand.

Also, if you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can never go wrong with The Rumpus. Great columns, lively emails, and out of control events.

3) Readings and Interviews at your local community college or university. Check these websites if you’re in the area: UC Berkeley or Stanford. Mentioning these rivals in the same sentence is all kinds of wrong, but there it is.

4) Take workshop classes at your local community college or university. Workshops are also available online and in your community through other organizations.

5) Once you’ve connected to your literary community, start or join a writer’s group.

These last two will be the topic of many upcoming posts, which is why I have left them short. You’ve already heard a little about my workshop experience, but there is much more to come.


Literary Immersion Interlude: A Night with Billy Collins

Posted in Getting Lit, Reads on April 9, 2011 by Melissa Henry

It’s worth interrupting this thread to talk about the reading I attended last night…

Billy Collins is a distinguished professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York. He was also Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, and Poet Laureate of New York State from 2004 to 2006. He is the author of nine collections of poetry, and editor of Poetry 180 and 180 More.

Needless to say it was quite an event. Having misguidedly quieted the tyrannical type-A person within, I casually picked up a writer friend of mine and we meandered over to the reading. We entered the small underground garage  and slowly snaked through the gridlocked aisles. At some point we all realized our dismal collective parking fate, my friend and I, and about a dozen other wild-eyed readers.

After hiking in from downtown, we finally reached the doors of Kepler’s. You’ll hear me talk a lot about this fabulous indie bookstore because I love it so. Walking in, it was like no other reading I’ve ever seen them host. Kepler’s may be an indie, but it’s good-sized. The entire center of the bookstore had been cleared and was filled with chairs, which of course were already filled with people. People leaned on end-caps and craned their necks from the far ends of aisles. I sat, folded up on the floor leaning against a rack of lit journals, at the upper edge of the room next to my friend. We soaked in the collective energy of the room from the best seats in the house.

Billy Collins read from his new book, Horoscopes for the Dead, along with some oldies and some fresh from the printer poems. He gave us insights and tidbits about the origin of each of the pieces, and many good laughs.

During the Q&A someone asked:

You write a lot about windows, what do windows mean to you?

To which he replied:

People who write fiction, do so because they are interested in other people, interested in looking into other people’s windows. They like to see how people move around and relate to one another.

Poets are only interested in themselves, they want to look out their own window and tell you what they see.

Of course I’m paraphrasing here, but that is the gist of his thoughts on windows and how they relate to the writer. Or rather, how the writer relates the view to the reader.

Collins also, upon request, read Lanyard. That is, after quipping, “What? You think I’m a poetry jukebox?” and laughing.

It was a wonderful night spent listening to words and thoughts, and being in the company of those who also love words. Sometimes I forget this feeling, the one we have when we go to readings and lit events. We get caught up in our lives, between work and family and writing, and sometimes our time shrinks so much we feel as if we’re living our hours in the red. But nights like these make me pause, think about what is really important to me. Nights like the one we were privileged to have with Billy Collins, are important.

Opportunities like these exist everywhere, all the time, and we’re missing them because we don’t want to drive to the city after work, or engage our brains, or find parking. We only realize what we miss when we experience a night with a great author, or hear a talk that makes us question our thoughts, or sit around with good friends talking about books and events. But, I’m just taking a wild stab in the dark here.

So here’s to packing in even more lit events!

Speaking of which:

The Rumpus’ “Friendly Gathering” with Zyzzyva is on Monday, April 11th at The Make-Out Room, 3225 22nd Street, in the Mission at 7pm. Tix $10 through brownpaper.

And…if you haven’t signed up to receive overly personal emails from author and Rumpus editor, Stephen Elliott, do it. You won’t regret it. Promise.

And…one more note on Billy Collins, check out his latest NPR interview.

F.I.N.E.* is now searchable in iTunes

Posted in FINE: starved without physical evidence, Podcast on April 4, 2011 by Melissa Henry

A quick note to let you know that iTunes users can now subscribe to my podcast feed directly through the application. Simply go to your iTunes application and search either “Melissa Henry” or “FINE” and you’ll find readings from my project under the podcasts section. I’m working on getting that pesky “clean” label removed from the project, as it’s neither “explicit” nor “clean.”  Also, as I post new podcasts corresponding cover art should pop up over on the website and podcast page.

Thanks for listening!

Literary Immersion Therapy: How I dove into the Lit scene…

Posted in Getting Lit, Reads, Writing on April 2, 2011 by Melissa Henry

If you’re a writer and you know me, you’re never going to believe this but I’m going to tell you anyway…

Before I began writing I wasn’t one to show up at a party alone or strike up a conversation with a stranger. I have always been on the shy side at introduction, and my raucous and rowdy self once you got to know me. If I was going to dive into this new community of people I knew the shy side of my personality wasn’t going to get me anywhere. This goes back to, “Am I willing to do anything for my project? Do I believe in what I’m doing?” I did and I do, and so I struck out on my own, fearless.

Fearless is important, even if you fake it. Though I never misrepresented who I was, in any way, I looked at it as an acting part. When I am “Melissa the Writer” I introduce myself to other writers, I talk to strangers, I put myself out there without hesitation. What did I have to lose by taking advantage of every opportunity to connect with writing community?

Like I said, I dove head first into the Lit scene. This is where I started…

LitQuake. If you’ve never been, go! It’s amazing. Imagine 14,000 creative minds descending on the San Francisco Bay Area, new writers rubbing elbows with the literati in bars and shops and even alleyways. In 2010, they had 46 events during the festival and 65 events in the infamous LitCrawl on closing night. The New York Times even picked up the story. This is our Sundance, our Cannes Film Festival, and it’s a blast.

My first LitQuake was in 2009. I hopped BART, MUNI, and buses, I drove into the city after work, and I did it all alone. It was actually freeing to be alone at these amazing events, I could go to anything I liked and no one knew who I was or what I had or hadn’t written. Anonymity is comfortable.

My favorite event took place in the San José library. It wasn’t glitzy, there wasn’t a bar or crowds of rowdy writers, it was a single author: Mary Roach. You may have read: Stiff, Spook, Bonk, or the recently released Packing for Mars. She’s as witty and brilliant in person as her writing makes her out to be. Scientific information doesn’t have to be dry and her books prove it.

At the end of her interview, I stood in line with the rest of the room hoping for a minute of her time. I was thinking about breaking into science writing and was looking for a little advice. What I got was several minutes, and an email. Ms. Roach didn’t mind holding up the line to talk to me and didn’t mind responding to my emails. If you can find an author as generous as Mary Roach, talk to them, pick their brains, and for goddsakes shut up and listen.

The best large-scale event, held at Hotel Monaco on Geary, was Mouthy Dames with: Kim Addonizio, Christine Comaford, Jane Ganahl, Kim Wong Keltner, Wendy Merrill, Terry McMillan, April Sinclair, and Jane Smiley.

Never in my life have I seen eight people speak at an event and have eight people knock it out of the park. The room was electric with cheers, laughter, and roaring applause.

You’ll hear more about some of these amazing people later because as I found out, one thing leads to another, and another, and another. Everyone is connected to everyone else, you just have to get out there.

I don’t know how I ever thought I could fit all of my initial literary adventures into a single post so stay tuned for Literary Immersion Therapy: Part 2.


Podcast: Chapter 1…well, the first half

Posted in FINE: starved without physical evidence, Podcast on March 26, 2011 by Melissa Henry

The second podcast is up! This is the first half of chapter one, mainly detailing family dynamics. The second half is soon to follow, and will discuss early experiences with body image and dieting. If you like what you hear, there are a couple of ways you can stay up-to-date. I’ve added a podcast RSS feed button over there on the right and if you visit my podcast page, you’ll find an iTunes subscription button.

As always, I would love to hear what you think!

Too Busy to Write: How I found the time…

Posted in Writing on March 18, 2011 by Melissa Henry

Today is day 12 of my work week and so I thought I’d post about making time to write. It’s highly unusual to have such a prolonged grant push in the lab so I’m not grumpy in the slightest, just thoroughly exhausted. There’s something satisfying about delivering double the amount of work requested, particularly when you work with a highly appreciative team. But less about grant season and more about writing…

Just as I was diving into the literary scene, I had the opportunity to hear Christine Comaford read from her book, Rules for Renegades, at LitQuake 2009. From her book: “Renegades are willing to do whatever it takes; they have that fire in the belly.”

What stuck with me was a story she told about putting a poster up in her cubicle that read, “Your first million” printed over a pile of cash. Of course I wasn’t looking to make my first million, I was trying to write my first book, but the tactics ended up being the same. Her take home message: Do whatever it takes to reach your goal. Every time you do something whether it is a purchase or your time, it should further that single goal. Whether it’s making it in business or writing a book, having that sort of focus can take you far. She made her first million, and I very nearly have a first draft. Many thanks to Ms. Comaford, she may well be the reason I found time to write.

One simple question: Is this helping me reach my writing goal?

I asked it every time I did something, ensuring my mental RAM, my time, and even my money, were all devoted to chasing down my goal. This was me going “all in.”

It’s common to be over-committed, everyone is over-committed. If I’m not over-committed I feel like I’m wasting time. There’s too much to do and too much to see, to just lay around. But, that over-committed addiction was going to get in the way of my writing goal so I chucked it. It was down to bare essentials, back to basics, if I was going to get this thing written.

Basics meant no changes in my work life (I love what I do, it doesn’t just pay the bills), keeping up with family responsibilities (which happened to be fairly demanding, check out my next project CRUSHED at, and finding time to run. Now that I see them listed here, there were a lot of basics. However, the next list is longer.

Everything else was cut: reading science books (since college, I have almost always read three books at a time: science, non-fiction, and poetry), any kind of art (quilting, photography, painting, crafting, etc), and lazy free time. Yes, my hobby buddies were disappointed but I did keep quilt camp. I now only sew once a year for a week up in the woods with my quilting friends. Odd factoid, I know. No, putting all of these things on hold didn’t hurt as much as I thought.  I also cut out huge chunks of sleeping. Aunt Jean always said, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Agreed.

For months, I got up three hours early, crossed the bridge in the dark and was the first customer at the coffee-house. Yes, writing in a coffee-house has become such a cliché, that the cliché of writing in a coffee-house is a cliché in and of itself. I dare you to use cliché three times in a sentence. I ended everyday in that same coffee-house; I was typing when it opened and typing when it closed, working 8 hours in the lab in between. At least I avoided bridge traffic.

This wasn’t the only time I wrote, I bounced around to different places on weekends and built writing into my schedule. Every time I went somewhere, I left no less than an hour early. I’d get near where I was going, stop off somewhere to write and then make that baby/wedding/whatever shower on time. My cheap little netbook was my lifeline, I took it everywhere.

So that was partly how I got through my near first draft in less than 18 months. Now things are a little different, you can’t live your entire life with just the basics. However, that first year focused my energy and when I started adding things back into my life, I didn’t lose that fire in the belly.

That’s how I did it, how do you do it?


Up Next:

Literary Immersion Therapy: How I dove into the Lit Scene…

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