Adding fuel to the fire

Pilgrims Burning Books

I’m only just crawling out from under my great big deadline, campers (ah, the romance of a working writer’s life!), so I should probably get some serious sleep before I start professing to give advice again. At least on anything important like querying, submission, craft…

Or pretty much anything else we habitually talk about here at Author! Author!, come to think of it.

I’ll be getting back to all of that tomorrow, of course, but right now, I could not think of a better way to spend the few non-horizontal minutes I have before restocking my depleted backlog of Zs than in noting today’s rather important literary anniversary: on this date in 1973, history tells us, the Drake, North Carolina school board so violently objected to a high school English teacher’s having assigned Kurt Vonnegut’s classic science fiction critique of World War II, SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE that it not only forbade him to teach it — the school board fired the teacher.

Not the first time that ever happened, of course, nor, sadly, the last. What made this school board response special was that they rounded up all of the students’ copies of the book and burned them.

SlaughterhousefiveIt would be easy to dismiss the incident as the kind of thing that doesn’t happen anymore, but SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE has been one of the most consistently banned books in the world ever since. Reading it was forbidden in Levittown, New York in 1975, North Jackson, Ohio in 1979, and Lakeland, Florida in 1982. The Washington Park High School of Racine, Wisconsin was barred from buying it in 1984; by 1986, only students who had written parental permission could take it out of four Racine high school libraries.

slaughterhousefive3In 1987, its residence on the shelves of LaRue County High School in Kentucky was challenged, and it was banned outright in all the schools in Fitzgerald, Georgia. The following year, the school board in Baton Rouge, Louisiana was urged to remove the book from all public libraries on the grounds that it was vulgar and offensive; the year after that, parents tried to have it removed from a high school course on the modern novel because of offensive language and the portrayal of women in the book. (A book which, incidentally, contains only two substantial female characters — not that any of Vonnegut’s female characters are ever especially substantial — an ex-adult movie star kidnapped by aliens and the protagonist’s unattractive wife.)

slaughterhousefive4Seem like ancient history? Okay, try these on for size: in 1996, parents at the Round Rock Independent High School in Texas unsuccessfully tried to get the book removed on the grounds that it was too violent. In 1998, its presence as a summer reading option for incoming eleventh graders in Prince William County, Virginia raised quite a furor. In 2001, the book was removed from a tenth grade required reading list in Coventry, Rhode Island because a parent complained that it contained vulgar language, violent injury, and sexual content.

slaughterhousefive2Still too long ago to make you a tad nervous? In 2007, a newly-elected school board member challenged SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE and eight other books on the Arlington Heights, Illinois Northwest Suburban High School District 214′s reading list. Her objection arose, she said, not from having read any of the books herself, but from excerpts she’d read on the web. In the same year — that’s a scant two years ago, people — it was also under threat of ban in a high school in Howell, Michigan. That conflict escalated to the point that the following year, the county prosecutor actually had to rule on whether distributing the book was a criminal act.

It was not, as it turned out — comforting for writers everywhere, because that ruling was last year.

slaughterhousefive5Why all the hoopla over whether high schoolers have free access to a book that, frankly, is far less sexually explicit than quite a bit of the YA currently on the market?

It’s a great question, because despite the novel’s strong criticism of US military policy in World War II and the fact that it would be rather difficult to write meaningfully about a war without at least mentioning an act or two of violence, the stated objections to the book are almost invariably about sexual content and language. Which, as I said, are not particularly shocking by the standards of any of our lifetimes; the totality of justifications those who decided to ban the book from the Owensboro, Ky. High School library in 1985 could scare up were “foul language, a section depicting a picture of an act of bestiality, a reference to ‘Magic Fingers’ attached to the protagonist’s bed to help him sleep, and the sentence: ‘The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of the fly of God Almighty.”‘

Not precisely NC-17, is it?

As long-term readers of this blog know, I’m no fan of censorship — nor, I think, should any writer hoping to make a living at it be. Barring a handful of books may not seem like a big deal to non-writers, but to us, it’s the thin edge of the wedge: if the late, great Kurt Vonnegut’s writing is subject to death by flame, so is every other writers’. Especially those who write anything edgy, or about unusual topics, or indeed, in non-traditional ways about society — which, in case anyone hadn’t noticed, is occasionally vulgar, violent, and yes, even sexual.

As both writers and readers, it’s tempting to fall into the comforting assumption that good writing will always find an audience, and stories worth telling will always get told. Neither is always the case.

How do I know? The single most commonly objected-to word in SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE, the one that crops up in virtually every formal objection to the book, is one that I cannot use here on the blog, because if I did, the screening software employed in many high schools and public libraries would block this page. For school-age writers to be able to continue to tune in, I have to keep what I write here PG-rated.

I’m not saying that the word isn’t offensive — it is. (It refers to something Oedipus did with a close female relative.) I’m just saying that censorship does not have to be as overt as tossing a book into a fire to affect what ends up in front of readers’ eyes.

Write something interesting today, please, in honor of Kurt Vonnegut and that bonfire of books. Write something that nobody has ever thought of writing before. Write as if there were no such thing as fear of a book ban.

Which is to say: as always, keep up the good work!

The Immortality of Writing Restrictions, by Author! Author! Awards for Junior Expressive Excellence Grand Prize Winner, Sophia Gorgens


Welcome back, campers –

I’m very excited to bring you today’s contest winner, 16-year-old Sophia Gorgens, grand prize winner of the Author! Author! Award for Junior Expressive Excellence. Congratulations, Sophia, and may this be the first of many literary honors in a long and illustrious writing career!

That immense ruminating noise you hear out there in the ether, Sophia, is the sound of literally millions of your elders grinding their teeth in regret that they didn’t (a) believe in their own talent when they were your age, (b) have the internet to showcase it if they had, and (c) possess the confidence to send their work out then. So huge kudos from all of us here at Author! Author! for having the incredible courage to write and submit this particular short story; would that every talented teenage writer were as brave as you.

Or spelled as well, bless your heart. Or had as firm a grasp of complex grammar that, frankly, eludes many a gifted adult author. Heck, it eludes many a published author.

Trust me on that one. There’s a reason that copyeditors make pretty good living.

As if that weren’t enough of a virtuoso (virtuosa?) performance, Sophia’s managed to tuck a darned good formal essay into the middle of her short story. The judges got a big kick out of her essentially submitting both a fiction and nonfiction entry. Admittedly, they got a bit more of a kick out of how much most of their own high school teachers would have objected to the basic premise of this story, as well as envisioning what might have happened had they turned in such a story to any of their high school English or civics teachers.

See the comment above about older authors wishing they had your guts, Sophia.

So please join me in welcoming a young writer I suspect will be continuing to surprise and delight us for years to come. We’re privileged to hear this promising voice here first, and I, for one, couldn’t be more thrilled to witness her initiation into the community of writers. I think it’s going to be a more interesting place now that she’s in it.

Take it away, Sophia!


A single tear trickled down the sad and crumpled face, carving a path in the layer of grime and dust. Matt, a boy of thirteen, bit back his sob while wiping the tear angrily away. Men did not cry.

He panted heavily as he continued to shovel away furiously at the hard packed earth. The hole he was standing in was already three or four feet deep. He wouldn’t have to dig much longer.

At his side lay a cheap wooden box made crudely out of plywood. Wood was scarce now, but Matt felt that Leal deserved whatever luxury he could procure. Here, in his barren and dirty backyard, with darkness falling fast, Matt could hardly see the coffin anymore, but he couldn’t keep himself from picturing his beautiful Labrador retriever, old and worn, in that cold coffin.
It was not like his day could get much worse, Matt decided gruffly. His English paper had been returned to him with an F for “inappropriate content” although all it had really said was that the rights of the students were being utterly repressed at his school. That paper, averaged to the rest of his rebellious collection, averaged his grade out to a D. His father would not be happy when he heard about this.

Matt’s eyes were brimming with unshed tears of anger and grief. He thrust the shovel into the dirt aggressively, determined to forget his troubles. The shovel, driven into the ground with force, clunked against something.

Angrier still for this complication, Matt began to dig around what he knew must be a rock. His anger dissolved when he realized he could use the stone as a grave marker for Leal. If nobody knew, he might even be able to write something on it.
Excited, Matt eagerly dug the stone out and lifted it out of the hole. Only then did he notice, catching his first real glimpse of it in the dying light, that it was not a rock at all but a small metal box. Matt felt a sting of disappointment, but he was determined not to let it ruin his friend’s funeral.

After he had lowered the coffin into the deep hole, Matt filled the grave with a feeling of dread. Each shovelful of dirt flung onto that wooden box was shutting Leal out from the world of life and light with a finality that was hard to avoid. Not even the handful of daisies that Matt placed reverently on the fresh earth could ease the sense that he was abandoning his friend.

Dragging his feet, Matt returned to his one story house which he shared with his dad. With the shovel slung over his shoulder and the strange metal box tucked under his arm, Matt began to wonder for the first time what the box might contain. It would be easy enough to open, for it had only a simple latch to keep it closed. A curious box indeed.

After he had taken a shower, Matt lay under the sheets of his bed with the box, cleaned under the heavy jet of the shower, in front of him. It almost seemed to be looking back at him out of two flower-like eyes that blended in with the decorative carvings in the box. Turning it over, he saw a tiny set of letters in the far right corner.

Made in China ©2008

2008? Matt stared at the box in amazement. That was over two hundred years old! He wondered eagerly what it could contain, then bit his lip in hesitation, his hand already on the lid. He was supposed to be in mourning, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy himself, did it? Tentatively, he lifted open the lid.

An old pen (who used those things nowadays, anyway?), a marble figurine of a dog, a faded picture (it wasn’t digital!), and a small stack of papers met his eyes. Taped on the inside of the lid was a piece of paper that declared it to be “Lauren’s Time Capsule, 2008.”

Well, that wasn’t very exciting, Matt thought as he flipped gloomily through the paper stack. There was an article on the government, clearly cut out from a newspaper, and a paper written by Lauren apparently on… censorship? Matt was momentarily baffled, but then he saw the neatly scribbled note from the teacher, congratulating her on her improvement and giving her an A minus for the overall paper. She must have been proud of the work, Matt decided.

Carefully separating the paper from the article and tossing the paper clip aside, he began to read.

The Constitution of the United States of America [he read] includes the right to freedom of speech, press, assembly, and expression in the Bill of Rights. Throughout history, cases such as Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969 and New York Times v. US in 1971 expanded these rights, but many of the privileges expressed in the first amendment do not apply to underage student. An attempt to expand the rights of students was made in 1969 in the case of Tinker v. Des Moines, but it has done little to curtail the power of schools and adults to restrict the freedom of speech for students. The cases of Bethel and Hazelwood, for instance, allowed administrators to censor student speeches containing sexual language and student newspapers that contained “sensitive” material. Children and young adults who are still in the developing stages of their life are, in the Court’s opinion, often in a separate category than adults when freedom of speech and press is concerned.

Underage students do not yet have the right to vote and can therefore not vote for a new law to be passed to help their cause. For young people to therefore change policy, they must rely on presenting a case to the court and having a particular law or restriction overturned. However, most students do not have the financial means or commitment (as some cases take years to go through the court system) to challenge every unreasonable restriction placed on them, resulting in censorship on essays, school magazines or newspapers, and general self-expression. Students must conform their essays in a way that dulls the sharp edge of individuality. They thus must fall into the conventional pattern the school establishes for them so that thoughts expressed in their works are not theirs at all but the school’s. How can the public, parents or otherwise, understand what these young people truly think if, upon picking up a school newspaper or listening to a student speech, they learn only what the administration, the “editors,” think?

Schools are not the only problem point in our society for young, underage adults. Contests and blogs also often have restrictions on what young people can and can’t write. The requirement of no vile language, for example, hampers the author who thinks a character must swear for effect. Even if the author were to swear incessantly and use the crudest language, it should be their choice to write this and those who are opposed to the style of writing should simply not read it. However, this brings up the point of necessary censorship, rules, and restrictions. How will a person know what contains excessive inappropriate language? It would not be unreasonable to have an author’s note of warning in these cases. Rules can again be helpful and even desirable in formatting unless, as is it may be in a poem, individual formatting is necessary to express the mood of the poem. Otherwise, unitary formatting makes it easy for judges, fellow writers and readers, as well as potential publishers to read.

The most gruesome and erroneous type of censorship [Matt noticed a smiley face from the teacher here because of the interesting word choice] is the subtle censorship that society imposes on young a blossoming writers. Society is an expectant tiger waiting to pounce on those who stray from the path of conformity. In Dead Poets Society, for example, a group of boys who show a spark of individualism are berated by not only the school administrators but also by fellow students and parents. The mob-like mentality of people infuses them with a desire to please society. For young authors, this means writing about what friends think are “cool” topics and perhaps even developing a style that is pleasing to peers. The mind becomes restricted by invisible barriers and the desire to live up to one’s own expectations as well as society’s.

Whether it’s in the rules established by schools and other institutions or the yearning to fit into society, young writers often show the world a different side of who they really are, a fabrication of sorts. Fused together by the ideas of others and restrictions in our society, this fabrication can never convey to the public what the young populace think, feel, or want.

Matt put the paper down with a sigh. He had always thought the future he lived in was a better place, more advanced with its hover cars and reusable fuel cells, but it appeared that when one really examined the facts, censorship and restrictions on the freedom of writing for teenagers had always existed in one form or another. And with a society as protective and majoritarian as America’s was, he suspected it always would.

sophia-gorgens-author-photo Sophia Gorgens was born in Washington D.C to German diplomats Lutz and Ulrike Gorgens. Along with her family, including two brothers and an older sister, she moved to Bonn, Germany; Boston, Massachusetts; Ankara, Turkey; and Atlanta, Georgia, where she currently resides. Sophia has acquired a love for traveling and has visited over twenty countries and most of the United States. She is currently attending Woodward Academy high school as a rising junior. She enjoys reading, writing, skiing, participating in marching band, and spending time with her Bernese Mountain dog and cat. She has started bee-keeping and quilts in her remaining free time. She is currently working on two novels, Dagger: A Horse’s Tale and Rebel Angels.

Tennis Balls and Broadsides, by Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence First Prize Winner, D. Andrew McChesney


Hello again, campers –

As part of the ongoing jollity surrounding Author! Author!’s 1000th blog post, let’s take a gander at what first place winner of an Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence D. Andrew McChesney has to say about self-censorship, shall we?

Did I just sense some of you out there doing a double-take? “Two first-place winners, Anne?” the masses cry. “How is that possible?”

Well, if you’ll consult the rules, I think you’ll find that I’d been a contest judge often enough to anticipate that the judges would keep saying, “But…but…” when it came right down to ranking the top few entries. (I’m not all that into linear hierarchies, anyway.)

I was tickled that Dave McChesney — as he’s known around these parts — had an entry that made it to the “But…but…” stage of competition, I must admit. There’s a certain symmetry to it: Dave was the first reader ever to post a comment on Author! Author!, so he’s presumably been here for the unveiling of pretty much all of the first 1000 posts.

When he’s not commenting here, Dave also blogs, as well as sharing his naval adventures on his Stone Island Stories website. As if that weren’t enough to keep anyone busy, he’s also president of Spokane Authors and Self-Publishers. And I have it on good authority that he painted the naval scene behind him in the photo below.

What does he do with the rest of his time, you ask? Read on…


For the past five years I’ve spent three mornings a week cleaning tennis courts at a private athletic facility. Tennis balls are covered in pale green fuzzy stuff that flies into the nether at a glance. Striking one of these lime colored orbs with a racquet, or letting it to bounce off the sandpaper-like surface of the court causes wholesale shedding. The fuzz doesn’t drift away and disappear, but settles on the court’s surface. Depending upon air currents, it also collects in various corners and turns into phosphorescent green dust bunnies.

Pushing a heavy court sweeper for two or three miles before most people are awake requires a certain amount of physical stamina, but demands on my intellect are minimal. I use a battery-powered sweeper-vacuum machine to rid the playing surfaces of the accumulated fuzz. The chore is somewhat akin to mowing a lawn as it involves walking around in circles while ensuring I don’t miss a spot and clean another one seventeen times.

Because I work early, my lunch break occurs at a time when most “normal” people first leave home for the day. I’m not usually hungry but enjoy the relaxation a break affords me. I kick my shoes off, drink a cup of coffee and read. After finishing nearly all of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series, for once following the order of Hornblower’s career, I felt compelled to re-work a story I had originally written in high school.

The hour and a half it takes to clean the tennis courts lets me turn loose a large portion of my imagination and come up with characters, plots, and scenes for the story. I’m not always satisfied with what I arrive at, but I’ll be back at the same task in a day or two and can revisit and revise to my heart’s delight. The biggest difficulty is remembering my thoughts until I have a chance write them down. Even if I don’t remember things word for word, I usually retain the basic idea. These times also allow me to mentally compose query letters, conceive face to face pitches, and consolidate all I am learning about being a writer.

Having a unique story I want told in a singular way, I must conform my personal creativity to several sets of rules. If I disregard the basic rules of writing, how easy will others find it to read my work? Do I spell as I see fit, or punctuate as I desire, it makes it more difficult for the reader to comprehend my intended thoughts. The basic rules of writing establish common ground between readers and writers, enabling them to “speak the same language.” The more difficult it is to read a particular work, the more likely a reader will become frustrated and set it aside. I do not want anyone to quit reading what I have penned, until, of course they have reached “the end.” If I want people to read my work, I must also adhere to the rules of publishing. I need to understand the conventions of the book-selling world.

Within these guidelines, I do have choices. In making my selections, I effectively establish a third rather fluid set of rules. These can apply to a single work or to everything I write. I might change them within a particular work if doing so better tells the story. All the while I must ensure my personal rules don’t run afoul of pre-established conventions, nor befuddle any readers.

Long fascinated with the sailing navies of two centuries ago and a devoted reader of C. S. Forester, Patrick O’Brian, and others, I write Naval Adventure. The story that has become or is becoming the Stone Island Sea Stories has bounced around in my cranium for decades. Over the years a fantasy angle has manifested itself, largely because of certain self-imposed conditions. In the original story the island was small; a mere pinprick on the map, so it was easy to pass off as being undiscovered. But as ideas for future stories grew, so did the island. It got big enough that I couldn’t justify or explain its existence in this world.

Realizing that Stone Island exists in an alternate and somewhat parallel world also allows me the freedom to tinker extensively with history than if my imagination had remained in this world alone. Other writers sometimes alter history to fit their stories or have characters perform historically significant acts attributed to real individuals, but I dislike doing so. I prefer that events and characters in my stories contribute an additional dimension to what really happened.

While the fantasy angle creates a unique story situation, it also causes problems with marketing. If I pitch the first book as “Fantasy, cleverly disguised as Naval Adventure,” the intrigued agent scans the first fifty pages and asks, “Where’s the Fantasy? I had to read the synopsis to find it.” If I promote it as Naval Adventure or Mainstream Fiction, I am told that the Fantasy aspect might be a turn-off for those who buy what they think is a traditional nautical novel. I have pitched and queried Beyond the Ocean’s Edge extensively over the past few years and admit a certain amount of frustration with the process. I get an ego boost when a professional reader praises my writing, but I feel equally depressed when in turn that reader indicates difficulties in placing my work in today’s marketplace.

I tell the Stone Island Sea Stories in a linear fashion, centering the tales on a single protagonist. I wrote the original in first person, not because I see it through his eyes, but because of a paradox I wanted to include in the original ending. Coming to know Edward Pierce better, I cannot picture him relating his adventures in detail, which he would theoretically be doing if I wrote in first person. Third person allows me a bit of flexibility with point-of-view; although I sometimes hear critical comments from those a dear friend calls “POV Nazis.” Rigidly maintaining a “close third person” point of view can be cumbersome when I want readers to see the situation from other perspectives.

While I write these stories for the adult market, I believe they will appeal to younger readers as well. I discovered Horatio Hornblower in my first year of high school. My daughter had read the entire series by the time she reached that same age. Yet I understand C. S. Forester meant these stories for adult readers. When Commodore Hornblower was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post it contained the first fictional account of adultery published in that magazine.

With the possibility of younger readers, I limit “adult” content and language in the Stone Island Sea Stories. I don’t feel it is needed and believe certain mature situations can successfully be implied, rather than described in throbbing detail. Having served for twenty-two years as a U. S. Navy Bluejacket, I personally have no problem with the use of “colorful” language, yet such words and phrases might not be appropriate for younger readers. (Would these readers object, or would it be those who monitor what younger people read?) Therefore, as I began the first book I determined that I would not use certain words and phrases.

However, about a third of the way into the second volume a situation arises where the protagonist’s most natural reaction would be to use one of those “forbidden” words. Feeling his use of this particular word would be appropriate, I altered my rules to let a very angry Pierce say, “At your earliest opportunity, do look as I have, at the very underside of the keel, amidships and aft. Then we both might know why this vessel did not so easily show her heels to those (expletive deleted) frigates!”

Having loosened my restrictions regarding this particular word, I might have peppered the remainder of Sailing Dangerous Waters with it. I may have gone back to earlier scenes or even the first book to include it or other “forbidden” words where they might seem essential to the story. I did not because I did not eliminate the rule. I merely gave myself a little leeway in enforcing it, and if truth be told, I use the particular word a time or two again near the end of the second book.

I’d like to believe that my choices in writing are mine, but I know many are based on what others expect. In setting forth the stories dwelling in my mind, I inadvertently combined two different genres. To be published by the traditional industry, do I need to pick one and confine myself to it? Do I maintain a level of artistic integrity and keep the stories as I envision them while seeking out alternative routes to publication? In like fashion, are my choices regarding person, tense, and viewpoint, the way I really see the stories, or are they an attempt to conform? Should there be sufficient objections to the decisions I have made, do I alter my style, or do I stand by it as it is written? Do I choose to avoid detailed descriptions of “adult” behavior and limit certain language because it is what I really want, or do I limit them to avoid possible controversy about my stories? Are my views as to what is acceptable really my own, or are they the result of what society as a whole has imposed upon me? These are questions that I do not have answers for. My lack of responses means I will always have something to think about as I clean pale green tennis ball droppings from the courts.

American writers do not face actual punishment for what they write, yet we are expected to follow certain guidelines. Those who step outside of these established boundaries find it more difficult to have their works published. In essence they are forced to write what the public supposedly demands the way the publishing industry wants.

dave-mcchesney-author-photoFollowing a twenty-two-year US Navy career, D. Andrew McChesney continues a passionate interest in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century naval history. Long fascinated with USS Constitution, he was privileged to be aboard “Old Ironsides” for a turn-around cruise in Boston Harbor. A tour of HMS Victory in Portsmouth, England while serving aboard USS Forrestal provides further inspiration as he crafts a series of naval adventures having fantasy elements. Beyond the Ocean’s Edge and Sailing Dangerous Waters are complete. Work is underway on Darnahsian Pirates.

Dave inherited his parents’ love of reading and developed a strong imagination, spending his comparatively isolated early childhood on a homestead forty-one miles outside Fairbanks, Alaska. Creative and imaginative play kept him and his younger sister busy and entertained. Once in the “lower forty-eight” and exposed to television, series such as The Swamp Fox on Walt Disney Presents kindled an interest in history ranging from the American Revolution through the War of 1812. Interest in the later conflict developed when his grandfather gave him a drawing of Constitution made by a friend during the frigate’s visit to Puget Sound in the 1930s. Discovery of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower in high school solidified Dave’s interest in that era’s naval history.

He writes, edits, prints, and distributes the Rear Engine Review, the monthly newsletter of the Inland Northwest Corvair Club. Dave is currently President of Spokane Authors and Self Publishers (SASP), and also belongs to the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA).

He resides in Spokane, Washington with his wife Eva, daughter Jessica, a 1962 Corvair Rampside pickup known as “Tim,” and a 1965 Corvair Monza coupe identified as “Ralph.”

Death by Dust Bunny, by Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence First Prize Winner, Auburn McCanta

Auburn McCanta author photo

Hello, campers –

The festivities celebrating Author! Author!’s 1000th blog post continue! Today, I am delighted to introduce the first place winner in the first periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, Auburn McCanta. Congratulations, Auburn!

A blogger herself, as well as a Citizen Reporter at the Huffington Post, Auburn’s name is far from unknown here at Author! Author! She’s a regular, enthusiastic, and thoughtful commenter — behavior we like to encourage around here.

I’m especially tickled to bring you her first place entry, because she was one of the few entrants brave enough to take me at my word and submit a short story, rather than an essay. I think you’ll enjoy the results.

Take it away, Auburn!


Cecile Martine was fixed on two thoughts as she sucked in her final breath: Darn that person for walking on my clean floor and How could I have missed that huge dust bunny behind the toilet?

She’d always heard that one’s final moments are splendid with golden light and an instantaneous remembrance of every detail from the moment of one’s birth. Apparently, that was not so. Cecile was disappointed to be denied her life’s account. She’d always wanted to tick off those events and qualities that shaped her as a woman. A simple woman. One who could locate the tiny curl of pleasure that resides in the gleam of another woman’s silverware, one who noticed every errant speck of dust.

A cleaning woman.

She had once written an article that outlined how home had an influence which was stronger than death. It was a law to the heart, binding its occupants with a spell which neither time nor change could break; the darkest villainies which disgraced humanity could not neutralize it.

After one trembling attempt to publish that smartly-written article in the Monthly Home Manager’s Guide, Cecile disappointedly gave up writing. Holding up a rejection letter as proof of her ineptitude, she vowed from that moment on to concentrate on improving the only thing left — cleaning for others. She anointed herself a Home Management Professional, although the fancy title didn’t change the fact that someone didn’t love her writing, that someone didn’t think the title, “Home Doctoring for the Modern Age” would contain a compelling read.

Now, more than anything, Cecile wanted her final accounting. She wanted to know that, although she’d lived a hard life and that she’d failed to capture that one magazine editor’s imagination, she was nonetheless a glorious writer living a peasant’s life. It wasn’t fair that she turned out a simple cleaning woman, dying on a bathroom floor, with a dust bunny peering back at her from behind the toilet.

Somehow, though, a smile tilted the corners of her lips. She found the one glad and notable thing within that moment; a small, yet unnerving sound that wound into the dark whorls of her rapidly closing ears—the tiny squeak of rubber soles on a still-damp floor. With gleaming eyes, she saw a man’s dark silhouette retreating from the bathroom, leaving her to the beauty of knowing that, in the end, she’d not failed as a cleaning woman. Perhaps, yes, she’d failed as a writer. Certainly, she’d failed to perform the next thing on her list — polishing Mrs. Connor’s silverware to an everlasting glint.

Still, she’d not failed as a Home Doctor.

Alone now, Cecile crumpled to the floor. She lay on her right side, one hand under her cheek, the other across her thigh. Her fingers — splayed open like a fluttering opera fan — seemed the only indication of her physical agony. She felt as if she were falling, sinking, being crushed by a great weight. Stupid, stupid, stupid, Cecile thought. Any first rate housekeeper knows one never mixes bleach and ammonia in the same container. Even a beginner is aware of this obvious fact. My goodness, she’d even written that fact in her article — the one turned down by that editor. How ironic can this be? Killed by a warning that was never published.

Her breath was ragged now; not much left of it. She wanted to push herself high upon her elbows, to rise above that gaseous, noxious mixture that was draining the life from her. But the burning in her nose, her throat, her lungs, was more than she could bear. Her body reacted by flooding her lungs with moisture. She was drowning in her own fluids. Cecile opened and closed her eyes, wondering if the next time she opened them, they would find a different sight. A sight of loveliness. Something she could hold onto, something that would carry her through this concrete moment. But the blink of her eyes didn’t make the horror any different. There was no question that she was on a bathroom floor, chlorine gas rising from a plastic mop bucket, her life slowly and exquisitely leaving her body.

She hadn’t expected to die today, but she was ready. Lord knows life hadn’t been easy. What with her husband, Darrell, and all and his heavy-handed ways, her father’s recent passing, her mother so close to death as well. Certainly, Cecile knew the fragility of life more than anyone. She simply didn’t know that today was her day to be fragile.

Her elbows slid downward on the wet, sticky floor.

It was such a pity that today was the day to die, because with her mother’s impending death, Cecile would finally have been rewarded for all her years of hard work, endless days of sore knees and reddened hands; her lifetime of serving others. She would have enjoyed an inheritance that far surpassed anything she ever needed. She didn’t even mind sharing it with Darrell. Of course, that all meant nothing now as her last, wild inhalation was nothing more than a faint whisper.

All that was liquid within Cecile now issued forth. All on her clean floor. Except now she remembered, it wasn’t her clean floor. That stupid, stupid, stupid person who had mixed the bleach and ammonia together (because they didn’t read the warning in her unpublished work) was the same person who had carelessly mopped over the floor — over an unswept floor, no less. It was the same person who had carelessly missed that laughing dust bunny in the corner behind the toilet.

On the still-damp bathroom floor, Cecile seemed to alternate between pain and pleasure, pride and disenchantment. She felt as if she’d been tossed into a diminishing wintry night’s fire without enough fuel left to continue flying its red sparks skyward. Her body’s warmth was pulled into the cool of the room, beginning with her feet and hands, spreading slowly until the cold reached the core of her heart.

Oh, thank the heavenly stars, Cecile thought as her eyes turned blank and blood began to pool on the underside of her body. Yes, thank the heavenly stars she’d been a rejected writer. Who knows what would have happened had she sent out another query letter? Had she been published, she might never have turned to the womanly art of cleanliness. She never would have found honor as a Home Management Professional.

She never would have noticed that dust bunny floating in the breeze of her last breath.

Auburn McCanta author photoAuburn McCanta is a Pacific Northwest girl gone south. After growing up literally surrounded by her mother’s prized Portland roses, McCanta now lives in Phoenix with her husband, one Golden Retriever and one impossible Labradoodle. She’s become accustomed to the Sonoran Desert with its occasional neighborhood coyote and scorpion rout.

After the 1994 removal of a sizeable brain tumor, McCanta found writing as a source of therapy. Her early work appeared in Cruising World, Hobie Hotline, California Cat, as well as the Sacramento Bee and Arizona Republic newspapers. Much to her amusement, McCanta’s first work of full-length fiction received a fourth place award from the National Writers Association. In 2007, her second novel was a Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary finalist. She was honored in 2008 with a third place award for poetry by PNWA.

Prior to last year’s presidential election, McCanta was selected from thousands of hopefuls by Huffington Post to serve as a Citizen Journalist. She continues to regularly write for She also blogs at

When not writing or undergoing yet another surgery, McCanta enjoys the tradition of her distant Irish heritage by eating potatoes.

The Words Not Written, by Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence Grand Prize Winner, F. Gerard Jefferson

Hello, campers –

As part of the festivities celebrating Author! Author!’s 1000th blog post, I am thrilled to present the Grand Prize winner in the first periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, F. Gerard Jefferson. Congratulations, Gerard!

You might want to remember that name; I suspect that you’re going to be seeing it grace bookshelves in the not-too-distant future.

I could go on and on about why this entry captured the judges’ hearts in the face of some quite stiff competition, but since part of the purpose of the contest was to help bring new writers’ work to a larger audience, I’m going to get out of the way and let his words speak for themselves. So please join me in giving a big Author! Author! welcome to a very talented up-and-coming writer, F. Gerard Jefferson.

Take it away, Gerard!


I’m black but I don’t wear it on my sleeve. With a post-racial president in the White House it’s not the chic thing to do anyway but inevitably when I write, query, do all of those decidedly non-author tasks like considering audience and marketing, I find myself at an all too familiar fork in the path — a choice between what I think is acceptable for a writer of my genus-blind talents and what the publishing and literary magnates are slobbering (or, more often, not slobbering for) from a writer like me. I make a choice between the branches because I have to, going with my gut. Not surprisingly, I write to match.

In addition to my race, I’m also the gambling sort who often mistakes his recklessness for confidence, but I feel neither reckless nor over-confident by claiming a fraternity among authors. Authorship is a solitary path but far from peculiar. If you’re reading this then surely at some point in your journey you’ve come to a similar fork in the path — you’ve made a choice. We all have. Maybe you recognized when it happened and maybe you didn’t, but the capital A Author you dreamed of being as a child and the adjective author you’ve become as an adult are two separate authors altogether. Be it romance, sci-fi, black, [fill in the blank with whatever your group is, italics please], or, for the special major among us with many affiliations, MFAs (multiple flouncing adjectives) — whatever the case may be we are a family so lost in the winding forest of specialization and genre and the subtle censorship it employs that our readers need prescriptive directions on how to find us. Conversely, despite all that flouncing, the adjectives make us that much easier to ignore.

The reasons for this I will leave for an anthropologist to explain (perhaps from the fossilized remains of another unheard traveler who has died along the way) but I recall a famous adage about authors striving to remove themselves from story. This guides my decision at the fork but presents a dilemma when art meets market and the gatekeeper at the conference is saying, “The writing’s beautiful, but [your group]… they don’t necessarily constitute a book-buying majority, do they?”, and I’m saying, stifling my anger because what I’ve written has implications beyond the group(s) I nominally represent, “How do you know that?”, and they’re replying, definitively, “BookScan, of course. Seventy percent of all hard cover book sales.”

When you’re faced with that kind of irredactable evidence of what the market will support how do forget about the MFA author that you’ve become? And how do I, when the black, male, married without children, thirty-one year old cheese grits lover that I am says so much about what I should be writing, and what I shouldn’t?

I am, of course, being facetious about BookScan and any other self-corroborating market analysis that willfully ignores the chicken-or-the-egg paradoxes their numbers represent. That’s a mouthful so allow me to translate: self-doubt’s a predator in these here woods, and if I spent my energy viewing the future from an outpost constructed from the past I would’ve succumbed to the nighttime caterwauls and weariness a long time ago. Instead I prefer to believe in a different future, a different world where possibility, even in publishing, is not restricted to those things that can be plotted on a moving average trend chart. I prefer to be as delusional in my belief as the gatekeepers are willfully ignorant and trusting in their data. I prefer, in short, to believe in truth that is stranger than fiction.

Just the same, though, as any unpublished author is told to do, I pay attention to national and regional bestsellers lists, and stay abreast of deal making through Publishers Marketplace. I read the bets that are being made by independent and major bookies alike; I recognize the regurgitation of theme and plot and an infatuation among many for old stories newly told. I’ve become aware through observation of something I never expected when I was learning to read with Dick and Jane — storytelling as the original green industry.

And I have my moments of weakness. Gatekeepers want comparables so they can link historical data and establish precedence, but book and author are inseparable entities. My novel can be similar to another but I have yet to find an author whose passion for cheese grits matches my own, and that difference (among others) invalidates the comparison, and possibly the sell. Not so in post-racial America, you say, but I’ve been told fiction is a subjective category, and in matters of subjectivity I have to wonder when and where the data parsing stops.

Which makes me linger occasionally at the fork in the road when most of the time the choice is unconscious. There’s a way to end this interminable wandering, a novel I could write. I see pieces of it through the undergrowth down the other path, the byproduct of scientific prognostication and market-savvy adjective art run amuck: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man…with fangs.

This high concept novel may be self-explanatory but allow me to translate anyway: are you telling me in this perilous market climate that some literary honcho wouldn’t clear his or her schedule to read about a teenage, 1930s vampire in an inter-racial relationship (meticulously researched, of course) whose need for blood is just as conflicting as his need for social justice? Is that your stance?

Wait. Before you answer, someone in the peanut gallery just keeled over from The Wiz revulsion. For those who don’t know, The Wiz revulsion is a gag response brought on by an acute sense of entertainment embarrassment that makes your unprocessed food want to get on down get on down the road…

But I’ve lingered at the fork too long. In truth, the shunned path is neither commonplace nor unremarkable and it’s a lazy man’s game classifying it as such — it’s a personal choice. Like everything else in these woods the difference between something familiar and something merely cliché is subjective. I, like every other traveler, must make that distinction and I’ve made it, following a creative process the US Banking system could’ve benefited from, booking my value as an artist on my ability to be original rather than derivative, an A Author rather than a MFA author. Oh that I have chosen wisely and there is a sigh in this for me somewhere ages hence. I don’t know that there is — I don’t know if there can be. I have a feeling, though, that if there is, I’ll rejigger the facts in hindsight à la BookScan and say my choice made all the difference.

gerard-jefferson-author-photoAccording to family lore, F. Gerard Jefferson’s claim of “always wanting to be a writer” dates back to kindergarten when, after the first day, he came home upset because he still couldn’t read. He would follow a more traditional arc after this — writing for enjoyment in spiral notebooks, becoming yearbook editor his senior year in high school, fleeing the craft because of the sobering fiscal realities of becoming an artist — but the “I still can’t read!” episode is, by far, the most telling expression for the ambition that defines F. Gerard Jefferson’s life and, hopefully, his writing.

After a five-year hiatus in college mastering electromagnetism, thermodynamics, and other logical pursuits with guaranteed earning potential, F. Gerard Jefferson returned to language arts in 2002 to recover a missing part of his soul. In addition to winning an Author! Author! Expressive Excellence Award, he was also recently honorable mention in the Obama Millennium Awards competition in New Millennium Writings. He lives north of his native Georgia in Cleveland, Tennessee with his wife and is working on a soft science fiction novelization of “The Road Not Taken.”

Where our fiction really lives, by guest blogger Linda Gillard

Linda Gillard author photo II
Hello, all —
Under any circumstances, today’s guest blogger, award-winning romance novelist Linda Gillard, would require little introduction: the good folks who decide which of each year’s new fiction to honor with prizes have already seen to that. However, I have even less temptation to be long-winded this time around, because Linda has a genuinely astonishing story to share about her road to publication.

Even if romance isn’t your proverbial cup of tea, you’re going to want to read this, I suspect. So I’m just going to get out of the way and let her tell her story herself.

Except to say: for the benefit of those of you not already familiar with Linda’s writings — and so those of you new to writing blurbs for your own books may see how the pros pull it off — here is the publisher’s blurb for Linda’s EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY:

emotional-geology cover Gillard smallRose Leonard is on the run from her life. Taking refuge in a remote island community, she cocoons herself in work, silence and solitude in a house by the sea. But she is haunted by her past, by memories and desires she’d hoped were long dead. Rose must decide whether she has in fact chosen a new life or just a different kind of death. Life and love are offered by new friends, her lonely daughter, and most of all Calum, a fragile younger man who has his own demons to exorcise. But does Rose, with her tenuous hold on life and sanity, have the courage to say yes to life and put her past behind her?

Quite the grabber, eh? Here’s the blurb for her second, A LIFETIME BURNING:

A lifetime burning cover gillard‘I think I was damned from birth,’ Flora said, staring vacantly into space. ‘Damned by my birth.’

Greedy for experience but determined to be good, Flora Dunbar spends a lifetime seeking love, trying to build a future out of the wreckage of her past – an eccentric childhood spent in the shadow of her musical twin, Rory; early marriage to Hugh, a clergyman twice her age; motherhood, which brings her Theo, the son she cannot love; middle-age, when she finds brief happiness in a scandalous affair with her nephew, Colin.

‘If you asked my sister-in-law why she hated me, she’d say it was because I seduced her precious firstborn, then tossed him onto the sizeable scrap-heap marked “Flora’s ex-lovers”. But she’d be lying. That isn’t why Grace hated me. Ask my brother Rory…’

That one sounds like a real barn-burner, doesn’t it? Here’s the blurb for STAR GAZING:

star-gazing-cover gillardBlind since birth, widowed in her twenties, now lonely in her forties, Marianne Fraser lives in Edinburgh in elegant, angry anonymity with her sister, Louisa, a successful novelist. Marianne’s passionate nature finds solace and expression in music, a love she finds she shares with Keir, a man she encounters on her doorstep one winter’s night. Keir makes no concession to her condition. He is abrupt to the point of rudeness, and yet oddly kind. But can Marianne trust her feelings for this reclusive stranger who wants to take a blind woman to his island home on Skye, to ‘show’ her the stars?

It just goes to show you: even a short paragraph is enough room to tell a good story, as well as to show off one’s skills as a storyteller. Remember that, please, the next time you’re groaning over the task of compressing your 350-page plot into a two-minute pitch.

Oh, and before I sign off, those of you reading on this side of the pond might want to know that Linda’s books are available through the Book Depository in the UK. Why should that interest US and Canadian romance-lovers? Because the Book Depository ships worldwide for free.

I just mention.

So please make yourself comfortable in order to hear an interesting, informative, and dare I say it, inspirational story of one author’s climb from the Slough of Despair to successful publication. Take it away, Linda!

emotional-geology cover Gillard smallA lifetime burning cover gillardstar-gazing-cover gillardemotional-geology cover Gillard smallA lifetime burning cover gillard
When a disturbed pupil took a swing at me in the middle of a maths lesson, I saw the punch coming. I dodged and the blow landed on my shoulder. While the rest of the class waited, open-mouthed, to see what Miss would do — retaliate with a left hook? — I sent the boy out of the room, re-assembled the remnants of my shattered dignity and finished the lesson.

What I didn’t see coming was that the blow would signal the end of my teaching career and the beginning of a long mental illness. Nor could I ever have imagined that my illness would usher in a new career as a novelist.

I was teaching in a school that served a socially deprived area and I was already struggling to maintain my mental equilibrium. The kids were challenging, but lovable, despite the fact some of the boys (those who could write) would have listed their hobbies as martial arts and drug dealing. Gallows humour kept the teaching staff going, but we taught in a climate of fear — fear of verbal and physical abuse from pupils and their parents — and fear takes its toll.

My doctor signed me off sick, suffering from stress. Stress became profound depression. I was prescribed a series of anti-depressants, none of which seemed to help. My moods fluctuated wildly, from highs that took me on shopping sprees, to lows that had me planning the perfect suicide.

Teaching had been my vocation, but I was too ill to return to my old job or look for a new one. I was 47 and, as far as I was concerned, on the scrap heap. I sat at home, alternately doped and hyper, not getting any better. For some reason — the teacher in me, I suppose — I kept a chart of my mood swings, the black days and the better days. I became convinced there was a pattern and concluded that perhaps what I was suffering from was severe pre-menstrual syndrome, so I asked to be referred to a gynaecologist.

We were no more than ten minutes into the consultation when this wonderful man pronounced the words that would change my life (and possibly saved it.) He said, “You aren’t suffering from PMS. I think you’re suffering from bipolar affective disorder.”

Manic depression.

I knew nothing about this illness that wasn’t seriously bad news. I seemed to be the first person in my family to suffer from it (it runs in families) but as I learned more about the spectrum of behaviour, old tales of temperament and eccentricity took on a new perspective. And so did I. As I stood in a bookshop, poring over a medical textbook, I was appalled to see myself described in forensic detail. What I’d thought was my mercurial personality turned out to be a life-threatening illness. My world fell apart.

But I was a teacher. I’d also been a journalist, so I made it my business to educate myself on the subject of bipolar. I read psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir, AN UNQUIET MIND. She’s bipolar herself and was the first person to alert me to the idea that there could actually be some positive aspects to the disease. (On my website. you’ll find a Mental Health section and a celebration of famous manic depressives: a long list of high-achieving people, dead and alive, many of them creative artists, some of them geniuses, all known or suspected to have been bipolar.)

My condition is mild and once on the correct medication, I stabilised. With the help of a supportive psychiatrist, I began to rebuild my life. Unemployed, technically disabled, I had a lot of time on my hands, so I read a lot of books and sewed a lot of patchwork quilts.

I read all sorts of fiction but struggled to find any that reflected my life and experience. There was very little that featured women of my age. Romantic heroines over forty simply did not exist. Mature women appeared only as somebody’s mother or somebody’s wife and they never had sex, unless for comic effect. (The publishing world appears to think that, although most books are bought and read by women over 40, they actually like to read about women much younger and thinner than themselves.)

Then one day, when I was reading Louise DeSalvo’s WRITING AS A WAY OF HEALING, I came upon a paragraph that changed my life:

I didn’t know that you could write simply to take care of yourself, even if you have no desire to publish your work. I didn’t know that if you want to become a writer, eventually you’ll learn through writing — and only through writing — all you need to know about your craft. And that while learning, you’re engaging in soul-satisfying, deeply nurturing labour. I didn’t know that if you want to write and don’t, because you don’t feel worthy enough or able enough, not writing will eventually begin to erase who you are.”

That was how I felt. Erased.

I laid the book aside and — as if in a trance — walked over to my PC, sat down and started to type. I wrote about “a woman alone in a light, white room”. I could see the room and sense the atmosphere. I could see the woman and she was writing a letter, but I didn’t know who she was or who she was writing to. With no thought of publication or even of writing well, I just started typing the first page of what was to become my first novel, Emotional Geology.

emotional-geology cover 2 Gillard

I didn’t plan to become a novelist and I didn’t plan my first book. I was a sick woman. On bad days, compiling a shopping list was a challenge, so I just wrote.

To begin with, I wrote lots of short, self-contained pieces that could be read in any order. If they told a story, it would be cumulatively, as a sort of collage. As I wrote, I noticed two things. The pain stopped. All kinds of pain. Writing, it seemed, was morphia for the soul. (And, incidentally, just as addictive.) I also noticed that time passed. I looked up and it was lunchtime. I looked up again and it was midnight. Hooray! I was exhausted and could sleep.

The word count grew, but still I avoided planning. Ducking the issue, I wondered if I could I write a “book-in-a-box,” a non-linear novel that didn’t need to be bound because the pages could be read in any order. (As a teacher I’d been a big fan of those Choose Your Own Adventure books.)

That idea worked for a while, but in the end I realised it did matter — from a dramatic point of view — what order you read the pages in. A final running order had to be established so I had fun carpeting the floor with printed sheets of A4, “designing” my book in much the same way I arranged blocks when assembling my quilts.


Emotional Geology wasn’t autobiography, nor was it fictionalised memoir. I managed to avoid some first novel pitfalls by wanting so very badly to escape. It was bad enough living my life; I certainly didn’t want to write about it. But I did want to tackle the issues.

I didn’t know it then, but what I was did was reject veracity in favour of emotional authenticity. Later, I realised this is an essential digestive process if the raw material of our lives is to be transformed into palatable fiction. Student writers often think a faithful, unflinching account of real-life events and feelings is enough to make something readable, possibly publishable. This is not the case.

As writers we have to accept the difference between something being true and something being convincing. Paradoxically, fiction can tell truer truths. If a reader is to believe (or suspend her disbelief), truth must be edited for fictional purposes and presented in the best form to do the job. This is what good fiction is: true lies.

If you find this idea difficult, think about raising money for charity and the photographs or news footage you might use in your campaign. You wouldn’t use material so upsetting that people would turn the page of the magazine or switch channels. You want to disturb, not repel, so unvarnished truth might not serve your purpose.

This isn’t a cop-out, it’s careful mediation. If we record “undigested” truth in our therapeutic writing, its therapeutic value exists for the author, not the reader. (To be sure, all writing is therapeutic to an extent and probably all writers begin writing therapeutically, but we need to move on from there if we’re to develop our skills, especially if we seek publication.)

When I wrote my first novel, what I wrote — instinctively and therapeutically — was an alternative autobiography, what my life might have been like under very different circumstances. I was married; my heroine was single. I quilted as a hobby; she was a professional textile artist. I lived in a Norwich suburb; she lived on the bleak and remote, Gaelic-speaking Hebridean island of North Uist, which I knew from family holidays on the west coast of Scotland.

I set out to write a thinking-woman’s love story that tackled real issues. I wanted to put a sensitive, creative woman in the spotlight and ignore her age, just look at her heart and mind. I was able to write with passion and paint-stripper honesty because I knew my novel would never be published. (My mentally ill romantic heroine was 47, and so was I. A less commercial proposition would be hard to imagine.) Hooked on writing, in love with both my heroes, I was fascinated to the point of obsession by the technical challenges of my story.

Was it possible to make a bipolar heroine sympathetic?

How could I convey her bouts of “madness”?

Could I depict the dreadful toll manic depression took on carers?

Was it possible to explore the undisputed links between creativity and bipolar without glamorising a potentially lethal illness?

Could I make depression interesting?

Could I, in short, come up with some good news about living, loving and working with bipolar?

I hadn’t the faintest idea, but I needed to do these things if I was to make sense of my own life, so I set about my self-imposed tasks with a will. I was writing for my life. Gradually writing became my life.

Structure was a problem from the start. Emotional Geology is a book in which nothing much happens, but all sorts of tumultuous events have occurred in the past. What the characters are dealing with in the present is fall-out. My heroine, Rose, lives alone but is haunted by her past. At times she’s barely able to distinguish the new man in her life from the one who got away. And that was the point. There is no escape. (My teacher-hero quotes Milton to her: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”)

I tried to construct a book that was confused, but not confusing. (My working title was SCRAPBOOK.) I came up with a kaleidoscopic structure, moving backwards and forwards in time, sometimes writing in first person, sometimes third. As I wrote, I delved into the layers of Rose’s memory, all of which existed simultaneously, like an archaeological dig. Landscape and particularly geology became the book’s dominant metaphors and so I arrived at my final title: Emotional Geology.


I wanted to take the reader inside my heroine’s troubled mind, so I opted to write in the present tense throughout, to create an “as it happens” feel for all events, past and present, since for Rose, the past was just as vivid as the present. (I discovered the present tense also stops you over-writing. It’s very exposing, like those bright, unforgiving lights in changing rooms. Verbal flab is spotlit.)

But how was I to convey Rose’s manic states? The problem with conveying mania from the inside (i.e. from Rose’s point of view) was that I had to portray a state of mind unfamiliar and alarming to most people. Was there a way to draw a reluctant reader in?

I’d noticed that at moments of drama or emotional stress my prose was straining toward a different, heightened style. Eventually I acknowledged — with considerable surprise — that what I was repressing was an urge to write poetry. (If I’d had any aspiration to publication, the introduction of poems as part of the narrative surely sounded the death knell for my literary hopes.)

The poems seemed to write themselves, even though I’d never written one before. This might have been because I wasn’t trying to write good poetry. (It’s wonderfully liberating when you stop trying to be “a good writer.” I recommend it. Aspiration can be artistically crippling. I never ask myself now if what I’ve written is any good, the question is rather, “Have I said what I wanted to say in the way I wanted to say it?” If I have, then for me it’s good writing. How could it be better?)

Emotional Geology depicted an internal, dislocated world of shifting time and place. The present tense and the poems allowed the book to float in various limbos and the layout of the poems on the page drew useful boundaries: Rose occasionally went off the deep end. When she did, she broke out in poems.

Well, it all made perfect sense to me. That white room was both Rose’s island home and her “cell” in the mental hospital. It was also the deeply medicated blank space of her mind. There was a process going on and, in Zen-like fashion, I just needed to get out of its way.

Even now, working on my fifth novel, I find I don’t always understand what I’ve written, or rather why I’ve written it. I don’t actually think it’s necessary to understand. I do think you need to be able to trust what you’ve written, which means trusting in yourself as a writer. That’s hard.

It’s also hard to trust intelligent readers to complete the process; to bring, as co-creators, their own experience and understanding to your text. It wasn’t until I started getting feedback from readers that I realised a book isn’t just the words we write, it also exists in the spaces in between the words. As authors we have no control over those spaces, but we can (and should) create them. They are where our fiction really lives.

I wrote my first novel just as a treat for myself, but I had a change of heart and decided to try and publish it after I read the results of a Depression Alliance survey in the UK which said 26% of those questioned did not believe mental illness was a genuine illness.

That’s one in four. Clearly, there was work to be done.

Encouraged by my writers’ e-group, I sent my weird but now completed typescript to agents. To my astonishment, one took me on. (I think she fell in love with my hero. Or maybe it was the Hebrides.) Then we struck lucky. A new imprint, Transita, was looking for books written by, for and about mature women. (This is no longer the case, so please don’t send them unsolicited manuscripts.)

Transita bought Emotional Geology and published a wide variety of novels which were a hit with readers of all ages, but were dismissed by the UK media as “HRT Lit” (Anne here: that’s Brit-speak for hormone replacement therapy, i.e., menopause treatments), “Hag Lit” and “Romance for Wrinklies.”

Aged 53, with my first novel published, I concluded that my biggest “disability” as an author was not that I suffered from bipolar affective disorder, but that I was middle-aged, female and had had the temerity to write about a sexually active middle-aged female. (The ageism and misogyny of British culture beggars belief. But hey, they used to burn us as witches! Things are definitely looking up.)

Emotional Geology fared better than some of Transita’s lighter books, perhaps because it defies categorisation. It comforts and confronts. It has appealed to people who have no knowledge of, or particular interest in mental illness and was short-listed for the Waverton Good Read Award, given to the year’s best first British novel. Well received by the mental health press, Emotional Geology was also runner-up in Pure Passion a light-hearted library promotion of romantic reads.


At author events readers complain to me in a good-natured way that they’ve been up till 2.00 am, unable to put the book down. But very little actually happens, so how can it be un-put-downable?

My theory is, since I write my books not knowing what happens next, nor even the final outcome, suspense and “hooks” for the reader are built in. Nobody wants to know what happens more than I do, so I’m writing as fast as I can, to find out. And that’s how readers like to read.

For this reason I’m anti-synopses. Publishers need them, but many writers don’t. Your subconscious — if you let it — will write a better and braver book than your conscious mind. After that, it’s all in the editing.

Planning a novel and writing a synopsis might encourage you to opt for the obvious in character and plot. You won’t arrive at your artistic decisions in an organic way. (E.M. Forster is supposed to have said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”) Would I have dared plan poems for Emotional Geology? The idea wouldn’t have occurred to me and, if it had, I would have dismissed it as pretentious. It was only in the writing of the book that poems presented themselves as the solution to a technical problem.

Faced unexpectedly with publication and the inevitable PR, I had to decide whether to be “out” about my own mental health history. Was I going to set myself up to be dismissed as a one-book wonder or an author of fictionalised memoir? (I didn’t realise then grounds for dismissal could just be middle age.)

I’d complicated matters by moving to Skye, another Scottish island, which made my novel look far more autobiographical than it was. (Be careful what you wish for… Writing my alternative life gave me the courage to go and live it.) A double bereavement and both our children leaving home had led to some domestic stock-taking. My husband and I decided to live our dream and move to a big house on a hillside, facing the spectacular Cuillin mountain range on the Isle of Skye.


So I did what I thought was the only honest thing. I’d written a book in which manic depression was just one aspect of my heroine and secondary to her creativity. That’s how it had to be for me too. So from the start I was “out” about my mental health history. Readers have come forward, in emails and in person, to thank me for the book and for standing up in public to demonstrate that there’s life after breakdown, after diagnosis; that it is never, ever too late to reinvent yourself.

I no longer live on Skye but I live a quiet, creative and productive life. I write, teach workshops and speak to groups about writing and mental health. My third novel, Star Gazing, set on Skye, was short-listed earlier this year for the Romantic Novel of the Year Award, organised by the Romantic Novelists’ Association.

star-gazing-cover gillard

This time, I created a romantic heroine whom most readers would regard as disabled. Marianne is middle-aged, widowed and congenitally blind. Much of Star Gazing is written in the first person, from Marianne’s blind point of view and this raised a number of technical problems. I learned a lot as I solved them — and not just about writing. I began the book thinking of blindness as a disability, but by the time I was halfway through, I was convinced the blind have other ways of “seeing”. (Or as the sighted hero, Keir says to Marianne, “You have perfectly good eyes, they’re just not in your sockets.”)

As writers we agonise about originality and commercial appeal. The more anxious among us fret about copyrighting our ideas. But Christopher Booker says there are only seven basic plots. (Did you know LORD OF THE RINGS incorporates all of them?)

But what is unique to each of us is our way of seeing the world. That is the commodity writers have to sell, the “story” we have to tell. When we discover our true voice, it’s as unique as our fingerprint. But it might take a long time — and a lot of writing — to find.

In the meantime, aim to say what you want to say, in the way you want to say it. That’s good writing.

How could it be better?
emotional-geology cover Gillard smallA lifetime burning cover gillardstar-gazing-cover gillardemotional-geology cover Gillard smallA lifetime burning cover gillard
Linda Gillard author photo IILinda Gillard studied Drama and German at Bristol University, then trained as an actress at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Whilst under-employed at London’s National Theatre, Linda developed a sideline as a freelance journalist. She ran two careers concurrently for a while, then gave up acting to raise a family and write from home.

Twelve years later, she re-trained as a teacher and taught in Norfolk for some years. She moved to the Isle of Skye where she lived for six years in a house on a hill overlooking the Cuillin mountain range, featured in her first novel, EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY (short-listed for the 2006 Waverton Good Read Award.) Linda now lives near Glasgow.

Her second novel, A LIFETIME BURNING was published by Transita in 2006 and STAR GAZING, set partly on Skye, was published by Piatkus in 2008.

Hobnobbing with the famous, however briefly


No time for a long-winded missive today, I’m afraid: you’d be amazed at how much the work can pile up while a writer’s on retreat. I’m fairly confident that my desk is in fact underneath all of the papers in front of me, but it’s going to take another week or two of digging to confirm that.

Since I’ve been back from my writing retreat, I’ve noticed that acquaintances’ inquiries have been falling into two basic categories. Non-artist inquirers, without exception, ask about the touristy aspects of getting to and from a medieval village in the mountains of southwestern France; they want to be regaled with photographs of ruined castles. Admittedly, they probably don’t actually want to hear as much about the 12th-century Albigensian heresy as I tend to tell them while showing them the requisite pictures — I was in the part of France where the Cathars ran to escape folks who wanted to burn them at the stake for their beliefs — but they’re very nice about it.

Mysteriously, artists seem less interested in who got massacred where and if I have a photograph of the church built upon the spot. They ask, “Did you get a lot of writing done?” and, if they’re savvy about artists’ colonies, “Were there any famous artists/writers at the retreat?”

Don’t laugh — the answers to neither are foregone conclusions.

As anyone who has ever been on a lengthy group retreat could tell you, it’s far from uncommon that writers and other artists show up on a long-anticipated retreat — and then don’t work much on their art. There are plenty of reasons for this, of course, ranging from having unrealistic expectations about how much one can get done in a week, two, or a month; being totally exhausted due to working double shifts in the weeks leading up to the retreat, in order to be able to afford to come (it’s really, really rare that even a top-flight, highly competitive residency will give you money to pay your bills while you’re taking time off your day job), wanting to hang out with all of the other fascinating people who tend to turn up at artists’ retreats, and/or just needing a vacation really, really badly.

And then there’s the most common reason of all, writer’s block.

Did that giant collective gasp I just heard indicate that some, most, or all of you weren’t aware that even well-established writers who win fellowships to luxurious artists’ colonies sometimes fall prey to writer’s block? Of course they do: all writers do, from time to time; it seldom has anything to do with talent.

So what does it have to do with, you ask? Usually, in a retreat situation, the kind of elevated expectations I mentioned above: the prospect of writing/starting/finishing a big chunk of a book (or a short story, or a proposal) within a short, intense period of time can be darned intimidating.

Whether a time-challenged writer is at a retreat or at home, the very notion of wasting so much of a second of time and space that was so hard to carve out can be paralyzing. And if the writer in question has, as so many first-time retreatants do, been putting off working on a particular piece of writing until he’s safely ensconced, the pressure to write quickly roughly triples.

If this happens to you, take a deep breath. Remember that part of what artists do on retreat is think — and that thinking is a legitimate part of the artistic process.

After you’ve taken a nice, long walk and thought about your project, come back to your writing space (which, I hate to break it to you, will probably be much, much smaller than the palatial digs I enjoyed at my most recent retreat; chandeliers are in fact optional), take out several sheets of scratch paper, and diagram your story or the argument you’re making in what you’d planned to write. (Everyone knows how to do that, right? If any of you don’t, drop me a line in the comments on this post, and I’ll do a short how-to.)

Once you have a visual representation of your project in front of you, circle or highlight the bits you have not yet written. Which parts would be the easiest or quickest to do? Which would be next easiest, quickest, least emotionally jarring, etc.?

Once you’ve decided which would be least challenging, sit down and start there. Don’t even think of tackling any other part of your writing project until it’s done. Once it’s completed, move on to the next on your list.

Repeat as often as necessary until you get into a writing groove.

Do I hear some sounds of scoffing out there? “But Anne,” some folks who have dreamed long about running away on retreat protest, “I could work incrementally at home. If I have a big, unbroken chunk of time free of distractions in front of me, shouldn’t I be using it for, you know, something more ambitious?”

Not if you’ve come down with a bad case of writer’s block, you shouldn’t. Demonstrating to the frozen creative part of your psyche that it’s also productive to chip away at smaller portions is a great way to loosen up the writing muscles.

That’s not the only strategy for overcoming writer’s block, of course, or the only one that would work in this situation. For more suggestions, check out the aptly-named WRITER’S BLOCK category on the archive list at the bottom right-hand corner of this page.

The second question, the one about running into anyone famous, arises from the fact that many artists’ colonies will offer residencies to well-established writers and other artists as an inducement to the less-established to cough up the change to come to the retreat as well. And that’s not just my cynical take on it, either: just as writing workshops and conferences use the famous names for marketing purposes, many retreats are perfectly up front about selling access to big-name artists-in-residence.

Don’t believe me? Check out the grants, fellowships, and residencies section of Poets & Writers magazine, one of the best sources for tracking down same.

A quick caveat emptor to those of you who find the prospect of hobnobbing with the illustrious tempting: check the fine print. Just as a famous author’s speaking at a conference doesn’t necessarily mean that any individual attendee is going to have one-on-one time with him, being in residence simultaneously with a literary bigwig doesn’t automatically translate into long literary lunches and impeccable feedback on your work. Unless the retreat’s promotional materials actually mention that God’s Gift to Literature will be offering classes or critique to co-residents, assume that the answer is no.

Remember, established authors occasionally like to go on retreat for precisely the same reason that any other writer does — to get some time alone with their manuscripts. Unless they’re specifically being paid to help out those struggling along the earlier steps of the path to publication — as many retreats do — they’re under no obligation to invest their retreat time in reading or critiquing your work.

Or in providing you with contacts, finding you an agent, writing you a blurb…

I always feel a little funny saying this point-blank, as this just seems like basic courtesy to someone who grew up around famous writers, but established authors are not required to help the aspiring. Yet writers trying to break into the biz rush up to the famous all the time, essentially demanding their attention and a leg up, as if it didn’t take a darned long time to read a total stranger’s manuscript. If you want their assistance in a situation where they’re not being paid to provide it, approach with the awareness that you are in fact asking a pretty darned big favor of someone you’ve just met.

As luck would have it, an extremely well-known Irish poet was in residence with me at La Muse, but thankfully, everyone was too polite to thrust poems-in-progress at him. (Although not everyone was similarly restrained when they learned that I edited professionally, unfortunately. It’s amazing how single-minded writers can be in pursuit of publication.)

The good news is that if the retreat is indeed paying the lauded one to help out the other residents, they’re not going to make a secret of it. Since it’s actually rather difficult for the average mid-list author to make a living out of book sales alone (again, hate to be the one to break it to you), plenty of very good writers supplement their income through teaching gigs, conference presentations — and, yes, hanging out at residencies.

Do be aware, though, that being a well-known — or even brilliant — author doesn’t necessarily render one a good teacher of the craft. Or a good reader and feedback-giver, especially outside of one’s own particular book category.

Heck, it doesn’t even guarantee being a nice person who won’t gratuitously hurt an aspiring writer’s feelings. As I believe I may have pointed out 1700 or 1800 times before in this venue, professional feedback is harsh, and standards do in fact vary a bit from genre to genre.

Again, this may be self-evident, but before you take the emotional risk and plunk down the cash for cohabitating with, taking a class from, or showing your manuscript to a famous writer, make sure that that the illustrious one has at least a passing familiarity with your type of book. Otherwise, you’re not likely to get as much usable feedback as you have a right to expect.

If it’s part of what you’re paying to receive at a retreat, that is.

The best way to assure a good fit, of course, is to select a residency (class, conference) that features a laurelled one with a consistent track record of publishing in your chosen book category. Preferably recently, as being treated to long, well-meant lectures on what agents and editors were looking for thirty years ago may not help you please them now.

Even then, you may need to take what you hear with a grain of salt.

Many years ago, I spent a month at an artists’ colony that routinely imported both well-established sculptors and painters to give emerging artists feedback on their works-in-progress and a famous author or two every couple of weeks to impart wisdom to those treading the earlier steps of the path to greatness. Excited at the prospect, but aware that I would get more out of the feedback if I were familiar with these authors’ most recent work, I naturally rushed right out and indulged in an orgy of literary preparation.

The first of these authors, a well-established author not yet a household name and the one whose work I preferred of the two, spent a week on-site. She read excerpts, gave constructive feedback, helped writers over manuscript difficulties, and even gave a couple of impromptu lectures on craft.

Yet I couldn’t help but notice that not all of my fellow retreatants were as happy with her input as I was — but then, she wrote comedy, and so did I. She liked the chapter I submitted for critique, so we spent a charming hour chatting about my work, hers, and how I could make my writing more marketable.

Those whose work was less similar to hers did not fare so well, I’m told.

This mixed result is far from unheard-of at retreats that offer brushes with the Great — or at conferences, workshops, or even literary contests judged by them. There’s no way to assure that you are absolutely exempt from falling victim to it, but doing your reading in advance can certainly help. If your writing style is radically different from the critiquing author, consider seeking feedback elsewhere.

In any contest with celebrity judges — i.e., famous writers who make the final selections from amongst the finalist pool — this goes double, or even triple. If your writing doesn’t resemble the famous judge’s in form, think twice before bothering to enter.

I can feel you wincing. Crunching a few dry crackers should help with the nausea.

Back to our story already in progress. A couple of weeks later, the Living Legend scheduled to shed her effulgence on the residents sent word that she would be arriving a trifle too late for the meetings the retreat organizers had insisted that we book a week in advance, but in the meantime she was reading the excerpts we had submitted to her industriously.

One forgives such things in National Book Award winners, naturally. Good-naturedly, all of the writers in residence rescheduled our appointments with her to the next day. And then to the day after that.

When she arrived late in the afternoon of day 3 of her week-long residency, again too late for any but the last of the scheduled meetings, she announced that she could stay for only a couple of days — the absolute minimum, the cynical speculated, to collect her honorarium for meeting with us.

She wanted, she said, to meet with each of us right away. As in could each of us drop what we’re writing in mid-sentence and genuflect at her feet now?

Because I was — believe it or not of a writer on retreat — deep in the midst of a chapter, I signed up for one of the latest of the possible appointments. The Great Lady didn’t like that much, but one-on-one meetings we had all paid for, so she couldn’t just give us feedback in one big group, could she?

Seriously, could she? She honestly wanted to know — and seemed annoyed when we all demurred.

Now, I have to be honest here: I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from the much-delayed meeting, and not just because she had been, well, not delivering what we had been told to expect. I was prepared to be very diplomatic about it, but the fact is, I didn’t find her writing very engaging. Not to blow my own horn, but this restraint did require some near-heroism on my part, as my extensive reading binge had revealed that her literary output since 1957 had consisted largely of telling and retelling the (apparently autobiographical) plot of her first critically-lauded novel in slightly different forms.

None of which evinced the smallest modicum of humor. So I was quite prepared for her to dislike my chapter, of course, but I made the mistake of assuming that as long as I didn’t let her feedback vex me into blurting out some version of, “Why on earth did anyone ever consider you for the Pulitzer?” I would survive the occasion with aplomb.

You can feel the impending doom, can’t you? Wait — it’s even worse than you’re imagining.

Practically the moment I walked into my scheduled meeting — yes, it did eventually occur — She Whose Name Will Live Forever launched into a vigorous diatribe about the inherent weakness of a particular scene in the submitted chapter. The only trouble was, I hadn’t written the scene that had so upset her sensibilities; another writer in residence had.

Entirely disregarding my polite, gentle hints that perhaps she had mislaid my manuscript, the august lady proceeded to blast my fellow writer’s work for a good ten minutes. As nearly as I could tell from her tirade, she had decided that I must have written the short story in question — although I do not write short stories — because the character in the story looked a bit like me. ( As do literally millions of adult women of Mediterranean extraction, I might add.)

I had absolutely no idea what to do. Surely, when the other writer came for her session (which, because Nemesis has a dandy sense of humor, was scheduled for immediately after mine), the grande dame would realize her mistake — and something in her regal bearing gave the impression that she was not overly fond of admitting her own mistakes.

It took me several minutes to convince the Grande Dame of Literature that I was telling the truth about who I was and what I had written — she actually ARGUED with me about whether I’d written the chapter she’d been lambasting. By the end of our brief argument, both of us had realized that she had not yet read my piece at all.

Embarrassed for her — far more than she, apparently — I offered to reschedule our appointment on the following day, but she was adamant that she was only prepared to give me (her phrase) an hour of her time, period. As about 35 minutes of that time had already elapsed, I proposed that we should devote it to chatting about the writing life in general; again, no.

Somehow, this was my fault; if the writing in the piece in question — i.e., the one by somebody other than me — had been better, she implied, she never would have been confused at all.

After an intensive five minutes of rooting about in her battered Serious Literary Person’s satchel, she finally managed to dig up my submitted pages, mangled and folded into an intriguing shape that resembled a failed attempt at an origami swan. With a sigh of irritated relief, she plumped herself down to read them in front of me.

I sat uncomfortably, marveling at her speed-reading prowess. Fortunately for my ego — or unfortunately; I’ve never been able to come to a satisfying conclusion on the subject — she evidently did not find any error glaring enough to point out. I suspect it would have been a relief to her if she had, because then she would have had an excuse to dismiss me, or at any rate to vent her evidently copious spleen.

About two pages in, she gave the kind of titter that frightens dogs and small children, then announced with finality, “Well, you have some good lines here. But Greeks have been done.”

Because I have been to graduate school — the untrained should not attempt this level of logical gymnastics at home — I was able to translate this to mean that she’d seen MY BIG, FAT GREEK WEDDING (which had come out a year before) and had decided that single point of view represented the experience of every Greek-American currently roving the planet.

Clearly, she was not the ideal audience for this particular chapter.

But did I fight with her about the reasonableness of rejecting writing about an entire ethnic group at one fell swoop? Did I take her to task for not having read what it was her obligation to read? Did I dip into my well-justified dislike of her literary output to point out that she had been writing about her Irish-American family since the late 1950s — and that, in fact, had been done once or twice before, too?

No — because the literary world is small enough that if I blew up at that moment, I might end up as the butt of an anecdote about how bad writers are at accepting honest critique, the last thing I needed while my agent was shopping a book of mine around to editors.

(Did a light bulb just switch on over your head? Yes, it can be that easy to get a reputation as a feedback-resenter.)

Eventually, I talked her into reading the remaining 15 pages. After she finished, she glanced up at me warily. “It’s good,” she conceded, clearly cudgeling her well-laurelled brains for something constructive to advise.

Having been well brought-up, I waited politely for her to continue — and I must say, I’m still waiting. To fill up the remaining five minutes of our meeting, we chatted about the writing life in general, as I originally suggested.

Specifically, I engaged her in a discussion of the relative merits of the writing of David Sedaris (whose work she reported disliking, presumably because it is humorous) and Jeffrey Eugenides, that’s what. I didn’t even bother to point out that they are both Greek-Americans who write habitually about, you guessed it, Greek-Americans; I trusted that the irony of the situation would strike her in a week or two.

True, I didn’t glean any useful feedback from the exchange, but we did part on cordial terms (overtly, at least), which is more than merely maintaining a stoic, frozen visage or screaming at her would have achieved. To this day, in fact, she says hello to me by name at literary events. She has even introduced me to other authors as “an unbelievably good sport.” I doubt she divulges what made her draw that conclusion.

And that, boys and girls, is how flexible a new author sometimes has to be.

I wish I could state positively that La Belle’s behavior was uniquely horrible, but the sad fact is that one frequently hears similar stories about write-your-way-in conferences and artists’ retreats that offer on-site professional feedback from well-established authors as an incentive for writers to apply for residencies. It just goes to show you: not all feedback from professionals is professional feedback, nor will all of it be helpful.

But I’m relatively certain that had I not already sought out and received scads of genuinely thoughtful, well-informed critique of my work before I watched the Famous Gentlewoman unsuccessfully trying to critique my work on the fly, I would have been crushed by her lack of professionalism.

The moral: just because someone famous reads your work doesn’t necessarily mean that their feedback is going to be useful; just because a conference brochure touts a critique opportunity doesn’t mean it will be a good fit for your manuscript. Do your homework, invest your conference-going dollars carefully — and accept that sometimes, you’re going to encounter a dud. That’s the nature of one-size-fits-all critiquing.

All of which is to say: retreats can be marvelous things for a writer; so can feedback from the famous. But if you walk into both expecting something less than perfection, you’re probably going to end up happier with the overall experience.

Okay, that’s enough terrifying you for one day, I think. Caveat emptor — and keep up the good work!

The Most Insidious Form of Censorship: The So-Called Market, by guest blogger Roland Tec

A railroad CEO conducts a sensitive business negotiation parked on a live railroad crossing in the Nebraska segment of We Pedal Uphill: Stories from the States, 2001-2008.

A railroad CEO conducts a sensitive business negotiation parked on a live railroad crossing in the Nebraska segment of We Pedal Uphill: Stories from the States, 2001-2008.

Hello, campers –

My writing retreat in France is drawing to a close, to coin a phrase — and yes, of course I’m going to tell you all about it, as well as giving you some tips on finding, applying for, and happily surviving a formal artists’ retreat. (None of which are the easiest things in the world, let me tell you.) So if you’ll kindly hold your proverbial horses for another few days, to permit me get back into my usual blogging rhythm, I’ll be overwhelming you with advice, insights, and low-level complaint about the writing life again soon.

In the meantime, I’m thrilled to introduce today’s guest in Author! Author!’s ongoing series on censorship, subtle and otherwise, film and stage director, writer, and all-around stupendous human being, Roland Tec. He’s also the founding editor of the performing arts blog Extra Criticum, as well as serving as Director of Membership for the Dramatists Guild of America.

He is a busy guy, in short.

Especially in the last six months, which saw the openings of both his most recent film as writer/director/actor, We Pedal Uphill, and his latest foray into producing, a film version of Nechama Tec’s, Defiance, directed by Edward Zwick. (While I’m at it, here’s a link to the book itself, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans. And if you’re even vaguely interested in World War II, Nechama Tec’s Resilience and Courage: Women, Men and the Holocaust is quite literally the most interesting book I’ve ever read on the subject — and considering that I used to teach a university course on the subject, I believe that’s saying something.)

To say that I’ve been attempting to blandish Roland into sharing his thoughts on writing with the Author! Author! community since I first began the blog would not be entirely accurate. If memory serves, I have been trying to drag him in front of groups of aspiring writers for years before that.

Why? Well, for one thing, he’s a heck of a good playwright and screenwriter. You don’t have to take my word for that, either: his play BODILY FUNCTION won an Edward Albee Award in 2000 and was an O’Neill finalist in 2001. The Los Angeles Times called his first feature film, All the Rage, “one of the sharpest, sexiest and most amusing satires of gay life and values ever filmed.”

But none of that is why I’ve asked him to speak to us today.

Throughout this periodic series, our various guests have discussed many means by which good writing (and good writers) are discouraged, dissuaded, and in some cases flatly banned from presenting their artistic visions to the world. Yet as those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while have no doubt already noticed, we talk a lot here about writing for a market.

Hmm, think the ever-changing demands of the market — real or perceived — affect who writes about what? Or whom agents decide to represent, and what kinds of books are published? And, in film, what kinds of stories the public is allowed to see?

Who better to enlighten us on the last, I ask rhetorically, than someone who has spent the last twenty years trying to stretch that particular envelope? None, I say.

So please join me in extending a great big Author! Author! welcome to film boundary-stretcher Roland Tec. Take it away, Roland!

Roland's film We Pedal UphillRoland's film We Pedal UphillRoland's film We Pedal UphillRoland's film We Pedal Uphill

Something creepy and disturbing is afoot in the world of moviemaking and unless we face up to it, I’m afraid we may all be doomed to a lifetime diet of nothing more than pre-packaged market-tested promotional dross in our movie theatres.

There is a system in place now that includes major studios, their distributors and big theatre chains who are behaving more and more as though they were corporate divisions of studios and less and less like independent players. This model has more or less been in place since moviemaking took off in the early part of the last century, but what’s new is the degree to which the big guys have an airtight lock on the distribution channels out there.

It’s a dirty little secret of the film business that in the past couple years, ticket sales at the multiplex have soared, breaking records year after year, while attendance at the art houses has been dwindling. In fact art house attendance is down this year by 60% from last year’s numbers. Why?

One of the reasons, I think, is because one of the old reliable tools used by independent filmmakers and their distributors for grabbing the attention of their audience has all but disappeared.

I’m referring, of course, to printed newspapers. As their advertising revenue has evaporated, so have their column inches, particularly when it comes to Arts coverage. Not a week goes by when one doesn’t read about this or that favorite critic being shown the door.

This is purely anecdotal, of course, but my own experience reveals a marked shrinkage in actual space devoted to independent films in the past ten years. I’m in a unique position to observe this, having produced and directed two feature films which were released theatrically almost exactly ten years apart.

My film, All the Rage, was released in 1999 and We Pedal Uphill, my tapestry of post-911 American fear, just came out this March. Both films were made for less than one million dollars. Both were topical, smart and featured performers not unknown to theatre aficionados but without typical Hollywood Box Office cred.

What’s striking is that if you lay the reviews side by side, the amount of space allotted has shrunk by slightly more than 50%. A simple word count of both New York Times reviews illustrates the decline quite clearly. In 1999, the Times review of my little film which opened on one small screen at one theatre in the Village ran 454 words in length. Ten years later, my little film opening on another small screen in the same neighborhood garnered a review half the size, at 216 words.

Now, I know this is totally unscientific, but it is striking. Isn’t it? What is astonishing, of course, is that in the weeks leading up to the release of We Pedal Uphill, a Hollywood film called I Love You, Man (which opened on the same day as mine) received not only a half-page review but a huge feature story.

The reason for this discrepancy? I Love You, Man took out several full-page ads in the paper while our little film could only manage one two-incher.

What is perhaps most troubling about the scenario I describe is that many of you reading it will simply shake your head and say, “Well, duh!” The assumption that money talks (and should) is now so deeply ingrained out culture that no one questions it. And to do so invites ridicule and pity.

Do we want to live in a society where the culture available to us is decided by a bunch of suits in an air-conditioned conference room overlooking the 101 Freeway? I know it may be hard for some of you younger readers to fathom this, but there really was a time when an independent film with two people just sitting around talking for two hours could play to empty houses for weeks until, slowly but surely, word of mouth spread and the thing became a phenomenon.

(It was called My Dinner with Andre and it eventually grossed a respectable sum at the box office).

If we’re content to live in a world where that can’t happen, I say, we’re doomed. Doomed to live in the Dark Ages in which our likes and dislikes are determined for us by a bunch of guys in suits. In Medieval Europe the suits were the lavish drag of the Catholic Church. Today the suits may look different, but the cultural serfdom is much the same.

Roland Tec bio picRoland Tec is a writer, producer, composer and director. His film, All the Rage, released by Strand Releasing, was hailed as “one of the sharpest, sexiest and most amusing satires of gay life and values ever filmed” by the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times described his most recent picture, We Pedal Uphill, thusly: “Neither self-righteous nor bombastic, these wide-ranging mini-tales coast on a gently insistent tone of regret. Without pointing fingers or naming names, Mr. Tec reminds us that change does not happen overnight.”

Tec also served as a producer of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding and Edward Zwick’s Defiance. He has also had several plays produced Off-Broadway including: Bodily Function, Gratuitous Nudity and The Wreck Behind Us. Roland is the founding editor of the group performing arts blog, Extra Criticum, and he currently serves as Director of Membership for the Dramatists Guild of America. For more info on his current projects, visit the Pinkplot website.

Yeas and Nays in the Bard’s World, by guest blogger Sandi Dollinger


In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking
But now, heaven knows
Anything goes.

Back in 1934, when Broadway was belting out Cole Porter’s sassy lines, a new world was dawning, so it seemed. One where a playwright could saywhat she wanted without fear of reprisal.

When Porter penned his sassy lyrics for his soon-to-be Broadway hit, he did it with tongue in cheek, I’m sure. The twenties were over, dragging down with them that infamous cast of characters, which included bootleggers and those party-going recipients so willing to wallow in their booze, fling off their clothes and take baths in the bubbly while getting ready for the next round.

Yes, the Crash had sounded the death knell, a din which became louder and louder as gangsters like Legs Diamond got gunned down in the backs of boardinghouses. By 1933, it was curtains for Prohibition.

Americans had sobered up and just Anything did NOT go.

Porter certainly learned this lesson when he wanted a white woman cast as the call girl singing Love For Sale in 1930. He had to change the setting to Harlem and make the singer black, because of what the song was about. And again, in “Anything Goes,” he had to amend a number called I Get a Kick Out Of You. Remember that famous “Some get a kick out of cocaine” line?” When I got the script many many decades later, the line had become “Some get a kick out of champagne.”

But Porter was willing to do it.

It’s different when the essence of an entire script is challenged, however. And the challenge is subtle. What theatre calls the “Don’t call us, we’ll call you” syndrome.

I call it shunning.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. When I was in my salad days, back in the sixties and seventies, I thought censorship existed only in totalitarian societies, societies such as Soviet Russia or the Franciscan Motherhouse, which was my address at the time. I remember, as a nun, so desperately wanting to study theatre.

I even mounted a production of A Man For All Seasons, using nuns as actors (nuns showing their hair and wearing costumes, God forbid!) Eventually, I was pulled aside by Reverend Mother, who wanted to know if I was willing to sacrifice my religious vocation for the work of the devil.

You can well imagine the breath of freedom that went through me when I traded in my nun’s serge habit for a pair of hip huggers and a used eggshell blue VW.

It was the time when Leonard Bernstein’s Candide had opened in New York, along with Equus and all those anti-establishment pieces of theatre. I was on a high. I got my Master’s in Speech and Theatre from Marquette University and drove myself to the Big City.

I had a taste of playwriting in Milwaukee, adapting children’s books such as Tom Sawyer and Heidi for the stage. I was pretty avant-garde, but no one seemed to mind. (Not like people in the late nineties, who questioned me on one of my adaptations of Mark Twain’s classic, asking me why I wanted to expose young people to the anarchy of the Wild West.)

But to return to the late seventies. When I got to New York, I found a job at Henri Bendel’s collection agency. A hundred dollars a week kept me in popcorn and Rice Krispies for dinner and afforded the privilege of studying under a Cuban refugee. Andres was great with the Stansilavsky Method, but he didn’t want his actors selling their wares elsewhere. I did comic roles for Chekhov, Ibsen, and Oscar Wilde plays and then I wanted to move on.

I auditioned for Actors Advent and got a role playing Miss Margarida of Roberto Athayde’s one-woman play, Miss Margarida’s Way. The role was a
reaction to the fascist leadership of Brazil. It was about a teacher who behaved the way church and civil authorities were behaving in South American countries at the time. Miss Margarida informs her class that “Happy are they who obey,” while telling them to give up fornication. Not even kissing is allowed, even if they would like to kiss Miss Margarida.

Miss Margarida’s Way was loudly heralded in the off-Broadway theatres. It was comedic, darkly so, but times were different. They hadn’t become Teflon-ized yet.

Today, My Name is Rachel Corrie has found great trouble making its way to the New York stages. This play about a young activist-journalist in Palestine has met with great resistance. It finally got a booking, but friends of mine have had a great deal of opposition getting it produced upstate.

After Miss Margarida, I set my sails on provocative theatre and began collaborating on such plays as Stage Hands Never Wear Hawaiian Shirts, about a woman with an eating disorder-caused by the social mileu of the early eighties. People were looking more inward by then, and my friend Jimmy Rossi and I wanted to tell a story about a woman overwhelmed by the food world of gourmet consumption. We had a huge phallic-looking croissant swinging across our set.

Our Brooklyn audience was very receptive.

At around this time I began to write full-length plays and moved to Albany, New York. My first play, The Emancipation of Mamie Stutz, told the story of an older woman obsessed with seven locks on her door. At the play’s end, all the locks are broken. She leaves her dwelling with everything she owns in paper bags to sit in front of a library in Bay Ridge.

The college and the psychiatric center where the play was produced gave me good feedback, but I found on sending it out that I was having my first real experience with “shunning.” I was told the play had difficulties because of the language and the ethnic stereotyping. I felt it was something much darker –perhaps an older woman having sex? I wasn’t sure.

I went on to write another full-length, my current play, “Yours Till Niagara Falls”. This play has virtually written itself. I didn’t rein in my characters, and this is the story that wanted to be told. It’s a play about an older woman, as my earlier play was, who has kept a dark secret inside of her.

When I think back, storefront plays like Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free, along with other outrageous plays (Dario Fo’s, for example) have made me fearless in being sure I will not back down in what I need to say.

First of all, every play is about love, on some level. What I said about love in my play is that I believe there is something deeper than physical love which binds the hearts of two human beings, though the physical can be an expression of it.

The characters in my current play come from my own background: grandchild of Eastern European immigrants, and also a second family which claimed me — an Italian family ( also an immigrant family). The protagonist, Rosie, came to Ellis Island from Warsaw with her little brother, Mouse. She had virtually raised her baby brother (he was ten years younger), and now she was being sent to America to get married and raise money to send back to her relatives. The time period was prior to World War I.

When the play opens, it’s already the 1950′s. Rosie’s Italian husband, Shrimpy, has just passed. Rosie is left with a teenage daughter to raise. She is beside herself for Shrimp has left her with nothing but debts. They own a religious supply store called Heavenly Merchandise, but Rosie refuses to open it, lest sleazy characters wander in, claiming they are owed lots and lots of money.

Finally a neighborhood friend, Bettina, recommends Rosie see the parish priest to help her. Bettina, the priest’s housekeeper, promises to go over with Rosie when a visitor comes through the door — Rosie’s long-estranged musician brother Mouse! Bettina is overjoyed and leaves, but not before she flirts a bit with Mouse. As soon as she is gone, Rosie tells Mouse he must leave. But he has no intention of doing that. He explains he has been kicked out once, by her husband, and will never leave again.

As the play moves forward, we come to realize it is Rosie who has had her husband throw Mouse out. She could not stand to be with him as he grew into a man. Now she sees her feelings have only deepened and it frightens her. In the final act, Rosie’s brother invites her and her daughter to return to Brooklyn with him. Rosie begs a sign from the Blessed Mother.

The final moments of the play are a showdown between Rosie and Mouse, when Rosie is finally able to say what she needs to the man she has always treasured. It remains for Mouse to speak. All happens in the final moments, and then the play is over. Outside. the snow begins to fall. A heavy snow, but a silencing one.

When I first had my reading of this new play last December, I was encouraged by an audience member who asked if she might have a copy to submit to an artistic directors who seeks plays with one set, few characters, and heart. I really was encouraged, because some people I have given this play to have looked on me as some kind of ogre, some wicked, shameful thing who has violated all manner of political correctness.

But they are allowed their thoughts. I need not censor them. I just need to be attuned to those who find something there, who may make minor requests. Most recently a man named Wally Truesdell asked me for two more scripts. He said my play reminded him of a Polish Awake and Sing. (Clifford Odets)

Bet your dupa, Wally! I had the scripts out to him in the next hour’s mail.

Second, those writers– edgy ones — who have gone before me have given me strength to write about older people as main characters. I get a lot of negative feedback about this. The character in my new play, Rosie, a Polish immigrant, is sixtyish. I have gotten feedback that young audiences don’t like to look at old people — especially old women. They want eye candy.

But in both my plays, my characters are older women. I will keep them there.

I think I want to be real and will forge ahead. When Yours Till Niagara Falls was shown in an Arts Center in Troy last year, I had a very unique experience. Someone asked me for the script! She said it was a play with heart — and she really likes the main character! I am now sending the play out to theatres who respect women and their issues. I think it’s important for me to acknowledge their inner strengths and beauty.

I also got negative feedback about presenting plays with eastern European immigrants. But these exist in our country. They are people and have a right to have a voice. They have gone through much hardship — and shunning.

I want to encourage you to treat you dramatic “child” well, also. We have enough Grendels to last another century! (Remember that character who terrorized everyone — until a Beowulf stood up to him, and spoke to him in a whisper?)

Oh, we know anything does Not Go. But once in a while, something does! Tell a story — a real story with lots of heart. Get your character to a boiling point, don’t let her or him off the hook — and see what happens!

Some may say “Nay.” I prefer to say “Yay!” Just tiptoe like a mouse around the
nay-sayers — there’s a piece of cheese waiting on the other end. In theatre, 98% is work, even grunt work, but, oh – – that two percent of applause is of another world!

Always remember: don’t bury your head (or your writing) in the sand. When the curtain rises, history begins!

So break legs, as they say in the trade, writers!

The Hilarity of Carnage, by guest blogger Jonathan Selwood


Hello again, all — Anne here. For those of you who have found the ongoing Author! Author! series on subtle censorship a trifle, well, depressing, I have a great treat in store for you today: a guest post by Jonathan Selwood, in my humble opinion one of the funniest dark comedy writers currently drawing breath within the continental United States.

Who better, then, to share his thoughts on dark comedy with all of us here at Author! Author! — or to talk about the risks a writer takes by walking the thin line between outrageously funny and just outrageous? Or, frankly, to lighten all of our moods whilst enlightening us?

How funny a writer is Jonathan, you ask? Well, while reading his first novel, THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE (Harper Perennial), on an airplane, one paragraph started me laughing so hard that passengers in adjacent rows came tumbling out of their seats to come to my rescue, convinced that I was having some sort of fit that required immediate medical attention, if not actually turning the plane around. When I had caught my breath enough to apologize and read the relevant paragraph to my would-be helpers, their laughter kicked up such a din that two flight attendants came running. (They thought the passage was pretty funny, too.)

That’s right: parts of this novel are so subversively funny that they disrupt air travel. Take a gander at the publisher’s blurb:

pinball theory cover selwood

For years, painter Isabel Raven has made an almost-living forging Impressionist masterpieces to decorate the McMansions of the not-quite-Sotheby’s-auction rich. But when she serendipitously hits on an idea that turns her into the It Girl of the L.A. art scene, her career takes off just as the rest of her life heads south. Her personal-chef boyfriend is having a wild sexual dalliance with the teenage self-styled Latina Britney Spears. If Isabel refuses to participate in an excruciatingly humiliating ad campaign, her sociopathic art dealer is threatening to gut her like an emu. And her reclusive physicist father has conclusively proven that the end of the world is just around the corner.

Now, with the Apocalypse looming — and with only a disaffected Dutch-Eskimo billionaire philanthropist and his dissolute thirteen-year-old adopted daughter to guide her — there’s barely enough time remaining for Isabel to reexamine her fragile delusional existence…and the delusional reality of her schizophrenic native city.

Would this be the right moment to tell you that THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE is available for sale at Powell’s, Amazon, and other purveyors of fine books? Or that if you want to read more of Jonathan’s words of wisdom on the writing of startling comedy, you could also check out his earlier guest post on this very site?

Or that he’s recently yielded to popular demand and started a blog, Terminal Alienation? He describes it as n exercise in Evangelical Absurdism. Its goal is not just to support the billions of terminally alienated people around the globe, but to help snuff out the last flicker of hope in those still holding a tenuous connection to the culture at large.

All of which is to say: I’m overjoyed that he has agreed to guest-post. I hope that those of you who are planning to push the proverbial envelope in your writing pay close attention and come up with good questions, because it honestly is rare to be able to glean insights from a comedy writer this talented.

So please join me in giving a big Author! Author! welcome to Jonathan Selwood. Take it away, Jonathan!


“An amateur thinks it’s really funny if you dress a man up as an old lady, put him in a wheelchair, and give the wheelchair a push that sends it spinning down a slope towards a stone wall. For a pro, it’s got to be a real old lady.” — Groucho Marx

1992 was the year I first read the novel Lolita, first saw the movie Reservoir Dogs, and first decided to dedicate my life to writing. The connection? Dark Comedy.

As far as literary genres go, Dark Comedy is usually considered something of a bastard child. While it can certainly sell well, it rarely rakes in the staggering sums of mass market blockbusters like Da Vinci Wears Prada Traveling Pants. And yet, it’s precisely its lunatic fringe position within the culture that makes it — in my unbiased opinion — the greatest genre.

Tragedy, in simplest terms, is the story of a character who falls away from society and its rules and therefore suffers — think Oedipus. Comedy is the story of a character who is initially alienated from society and its rules, but happily rejoins in the end, traditionally with a wedding — think Elizabeth Bennet. (Yes, I know these are gross oversimplifications, but bear with me.) Dark Comedy combines elements of both Tragedy and Comedy to critique society itself–think Humbert Humbert.

By its very nature, Dark Comedy has to be the bastard child. A comedic novel with a sociopathic child molester for a protagonist (i.e., Lolita) is always going to upset the mainstream, because it’s supposed to upset the mainstream. It’s hands-down my favorite novel of all time, and it even upsets me — particularly now that I have a child of my own. But given the truly deplorable state of the economy, the environment, and just about everything else in the world right now, WE SHOULD BE UPSET!

Lolita is not some sick attempt on Nabokov’s part to make us sympathize with child molesters, it’s an absolutely genius attempt to make us reexamine American society as a whole. There will always be “mainstream” people trying to ban Dark Comedy — from Catch-22 to South Park–precisely because it’s a very real threat to society and the “mainstream” they hold so dear. At the end of a Dark Comedy, there’s no tragic lesson warning us not to break the rules, nor is there a society-reaffirming marriage. But if the work is successful, it can expose the flaws in society itself.

As if that wasn’t enough, where a regular comedy (or, to be more derisive, a “Light Comedy”) will make you laugh, a Dark Comedy will make you gasp. The most obvious example is when a standup comedian tells a joke that’s right on the line. If it goes over, it will likely be the funniest moment of the entire show and elicit that bizarre “Ahhhhhh…” sound that humans produce when the laughter center of their brains suffer petite mal seizures.

Of course, that’s a big IF the joke goes over. Not only is Dark Comedy the funniest form of humor (again, in my unbiased opinion), but it’s also the most likely to flop. And while a standup comedian can quickly move on to the next joke and at least have a chance of making the audience forget, a novelist is most likely going to get his book tossed onto the bedside table for good.

So, in addition to being the greatest and funniest literary genre, it’s also the most risky. But hey, if you were a coward, you never would have thrown your hat into the literary ring in the first place, would you?

Let’s face it, people don’t make a “rational” decision to become writers. It’s an inherently irrational pursuit, and in the years since I decided in 1992 to be a writer, it’s only become more irrational. (If you’re a writer and don’t know what I’m talking about, than I think it’s safe to assume you require immediate hospitalization.) So if the pursuit is irrational in the first place, and we’ve already established that you’re not a coward, why not go all the way?

I invite you all to join me on the Dark Side…

Oh, and if you live in the Northwest (or anywhere else, for that matter), pre-order a copy of Portland Noir. Not only do I have an (unbiased, yada yada yada) masterpiece in there, but it’s really a great collection.

portlandnoircover selwoodExplore the dark, rainy underbelly of one of America’s most beautiful but enigmatic cities through brand-new stories by Gigi Little, Justin Hocking, Chris A. Bolton, Jess Walter, Monica Drake, Jamie S. Rich (illustrated by Joelle Jones), Dan DeWeese, Zoe Trope, Luciana Lopez, Karen Karbo, Bill Cameron, Ariel Gore, Floyd Skloot, Megan Kruse, Kimberly Warner-Cohen, and Jonathan Selwood.

From the downtown streets littered with strip clubs and gutter punks to the north side where gentrification and old school hip-hop collide, Portland, Oregon, is a place that seems straight out of a David Lynch movie. It’s a city full of police controversies, hippie artist houses, and overzealous liberals, where even its fiction blurs with its bizarre realities.

Portland Noir is an encompassing literary journey where your tour guides take you to the Shanghai Tunnels, dog parks, dive bars, sex shops, Powell’s Books, Voodoo Doughnuts, suspiciously quiet neighborhoods, the pseudo-glitzy Pearl District, Oaks Amusement Park, and a strip club shaped like a jug. Violent crime, petty mischief, and personal tragedy run through these mysterious tales that careen through this cloudy, wet city.

Portland Noir is sure to both charm and frighten readers familiar with this northwest hub and intrigue those who have never traveled to this proudly weird city.


selwood-1Jonathan Selwood is the author of The Pinball Theory of Apocalypse. He also enjoys talking very loudly when intoxicated, composting kitchen scraps, excessively rolling his Rs when ordering burrrrrritos… using ellipses…

Calling Out the Tyrant: The Voice You Save May be Your Own, by guest blogger Paula Neves

Welcome back to our ongoing series of guest posts by interesting authors on the subject of censorship, subtle and otherwise. Not entirely coincidentally, as I hope all of you have noticed, this is also the topic for the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, for which the deadline is a week hence. Join in the conversation, and make me proud with your entries, people!

After Tuesday’s rather downbeat post about the writing path of a gifted poet, I am delighted to be able to bring you a much happier tale today. I think today’s installment in our ongoing series on censorship, subtle and otherwise, is going to speak very directly not just to poets (although many little birds have told me over the years that quite a few long-time Author! Author! readers do indeed write poetry), but to all of you writers who have either been submitting your work — and thus exposing it to the risk of rejection — or scared off from doing so by the sense that it might not be good enough.

Hmm…where have I heard that sentiment before?

Poet, writing coach, and blogger Paula Neves has some words of wisdom on the subject, ones that I hope you will take very, very seriously. Because contrary to what naysayers on the writers’ grapevine so constantly tell aspiring writers, literally the only writing that has NO possibility of getting published is the manuscript that’s never submitted.

Think about that, please, the next time you hesitate about entering your work in a literary contest or querying yet another agent. As we discussed yesterday, no force on earth so effectively prevents a piece of writing from reaching readers as its author’s not allowing it to see the light of day.

Which is not to say that there’s anything wrong with choosing not to try to get one’s work published — I have enormous respect for the Emily Dickinsons of this world who elect to keep their brilliance to themselves, or limiting it to a select few readers, provided that it’s an active choice. There’s a certain nobility to deciding that the world at large is not one’s audience. As Aunt Emily herself wrote:

THE SOUL selects her own society,
Then shuts the door;
On her divine majority
Obtrude no more.

Unmoved, she notes the chariot’s pausing
At her low gate;
Unmoved, an emperor is kneeling
Upon her mat.

I’ve known her from an ample nation
Choose one;
Then close the valves of her attention
Like stone.

Hard to argue with that, eh? But I’m jumping the gun here.

Please join me in welcoming a good poet who has been through the publication mill, has lived to tell the tale — and has been kind enough to share her experiences with all of us here at Author! Author! Many thanks, Paula, and take it away!

When Anne first approached me to guest blog on Author! Author! about my unique take on censorship in poetry, my immediate reaction (after being flattered) was, no problem—I’ve got plenty of “take” on that. But not in the way you’d expect.

The fact is I haven’t experienced much in the way of censorship in my poetry—if for no other reason than I actually haven’t published much of it yet. How’s that for an admission from someone whose been writing the stuff since falling in love with Emily Dickinson and the glamour of her reclusiveness as an impressionable teen almost three decades (eegads!) ago? Ok, so maybe it is typical for someone who would fall in love with the Belle of Amherst’s hermit tendencies as much as her funky slant rhymes.

Regardless, I haven’t yet experienced the tyranny of editors/agents the way many of you have experienced with your work. But it’s not for lack of want. In short, censorship is something for which I secretly long if only because it means people are actually reading my work (or at least saying they are)!

Certainly, throughout my life, I have experienced censorship in ways related to other kinds of writing/thinking. In college, there was that politically correct academic type, the subtle or not-so-subtle expectation of classroom opinions and written critiques following in the tradition of the paradigm du jour. I recall a particular moment in my undergrad days when I took a course called Homosexuality and Society (taught by a fairly well-known lesbian feminist poet du jour with whom my then girlfriend had previously had a torrid affair, and who had a hand in getting said girlfriend’s thinly veiled verses published –echoes of Marilyn Hacker’s Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons here—but that’s another story).

This was a course where all were expected to participate and actively relate their own experience to the material. For me as a young gay woman, this meant I was expected to “represent” and be a vocal lesbian feminist spitfire. I was 19, and, although American-born, a good sheltered girl from an insular Portuguese immigrant community far from home (i.e., 30 miles away) for the first time in my life and just coming out/Uhauling: what did I know about spitting fire? Both naturally shy and innately suspicious of “expectations,” I kept my mouth shut and passed the course with a C by the grace of the goddess.

Was it jealousy of the professor’s previous entanglement with my girlfriend that made me stubbornly refuse to “participate”? Was it that I didn’t actually believe in the homophobic origins of women’s oppression? Heck, no. Like I said, I was a young gay and sheltered Portuguese woman, the first in my immediate family to even go to college, never mind take a course like Homosexuality and Society. That alone was enough to keep me quiet and reflective.

Not long after this experience, two of my poems were published in fairly rapid succession. I had been writing poetry for nearly a decade at that point, but these pieces were the first I had sent out to legitimate (i.e., non-vanity) venues (with the exception of the time I was 17 and, after getting encouraging feedback from the editor at the Plains Poetry Journal, made the classic amateur’s mistake of overwhelming the poor soul for months with other examples of my “promise”). One of the poems was about sex and appeared in a Tee Corinne-edited anthology called (what a surprise) The Poetry of Sex, which became a Lambda Literary Award finalist; the other was about being the child of immigrants and ran in the (now defunct) The Portuguese Heritage Journal.

Although the yawping silence between these two major life themes was disconcerting, the response from the editors of these publications was surprisingly positive. The folks at The Portuguese Heritage Journal encouraged me to send more work and ended up publishing a couple of my articles, all I ever sent them before they folded the venture a few years later. Tee Corinne solicited work, a short fiction piece this time, which she ended up accepting and placing as the opening story, for her next anthology, The Body of Love. She also graciously accepted my request to interview her for one of the profiles I was writing for Uncommon Heroes, an anthology of queer role models. And she said to keep in touch. I never did.

Sure, I could chalk up some of this lack of follow-through to being young and dumb.

After college, out in the “real world,” I found work on the other side of the writing spectrum as a technical writer/editor and experienced the endemic censorship of office politics. You know, the kind where, no matter how much you write, rewrite and tighten sentences in a report, article or two-line ad copy, the boss always changes a semi-colon to a comma, active voice to passive, or adds a few more adjectives or prepositional phrases because

1. He’s older and went to a better school than you;

2. He’s a member of Mensa and of course knows grammar better anyone in the office; or

3. Because he’s the boss and can.

He then passes the masterpiece on to his boss and the process begins anew. You get the idea.

Despite these workplace entertainments, my personal writing and poetry remained fairly unaffected. Again, not for lack of being written (and rewritten) in hundreds of computer files, notebook pages, grocery receipts, envelopes, napkins (no scrap of tree pulp was safe), but for lack of being shown. During my nine years in the traditional 9-to-5 hitch, I sent poems to perhaps two-dozen outlets of various kinds. The results:

* two pieces appeared successively in a Princeton-based newspaper’s annual fiction and poetry issue, which paid an honorarium (miniscule, but still);

* I was accepted to do readings at three state-funded poetry/performance events—also paid;

* I did one-on-one critiques of high school student poems for a teen arts festival—also paid;

* various poems appeared in several issues of the literary magazine of the English department in the community college at which I worked;

* numerous poems have appeared in The Newark Metro, an online journal affiliated with my grad school; apart from the publication itself, this has resulted in my developing a good working relationship with the well-respected editor, a big fan of my work.

(On these latter two points, never underestimate the value of “small” or school-related publications: exposure is exposure and there are some incisive and often well-connected literary people behind these journals.)

Of course, I don’t mean this to sound like an ad for “You too can be published simply by submitting your work.” I’ve had plenty of rejections from publications, across genres. However, considering that I think of myself as a poet first and how relatively few poems I’ve actually sent out, my stats are in that area are pretty good. I’m also not saying this because I think I’m to Emily what Hart Crane wanted to be to Walt Whitman.

I’m saying it because my own worst editor/agent/critic has been…me.

Some of you may recognize this siren song of self-censorship. It sounds something like, “It’s not good enough”; “Maybe this isn’t really my genre”; “It’s going to get rejected anyway; it was already rejected several times”; “There would only be a limited audience for this anyway/This can get in local publications but not the really big ones” (one of my favorites); or variations thereof. Even for experienced writers these doubts can creep in and result in dejection, procrastination and missed opportunities.

Sure, maybe my early follow-through had to do with being young and inexperienced, but what was my excuse in my mid-thirties when, with reams of poems written, plenty of workshops, classes, and even encouragement under my belt, I brought nothing with me to a writer’s conference, and had nothing to show a small press publisher who was actively seeking new work and specifically asked to see some of my poems?

In my case, my failure to “show” had a lot to do with insecurity and trouble reconciling two integral parts of my identity. Since my poetry is, for the most part, confessional, my reticence to expose it was telling. Literally.

Eventually, I got that it was telling me to take the gamble, put the work out there. Not everyone will “get” it or like it, or understand what the big deal is/was about holding back. Maybe some of it still shows developmental tics.

Who cares? Take the risk.

Or risk missing other opportunities. At some point “it’s not good enough” has to be examined for whether it means the work or you.


paulaheadshotPaula Neves has been writing across genres since she was a teen, but has always loved poetry, to which she keeps returning. Her poetry has appeared in The Newark Metro, The Princeton Packet’s US1 Summer Fiction and Poetry series, a href=”″>The Poetry of Sex, and The Portuguese Heritage Journal. She has read all over the New York metropolitan area, most recently as the “sunrise poet” (a one-hour daybreak reading) at the Newark Museum’s Centennial Celebration. She has studied poetry and fiction under writers such as J. D. McClatchy, Rachel Hadas, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Alice Dark and was recently accepted into the MFA in Poetry program at Rutgers-Newark.

Paula is the founder of Technical Writing Service and blogs at Itinerant Muse.

An antidote to literary naysaying — or at least a slim volume to keep within reach of your writing space


Before I begin today’s show-and-tell, I want to blandish those of you who haven’t yet done so into entering the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence. Entry is free, the topic interesting (your very own contribution to our fascinating ongoing series on subtle censorship and other factors that discourage writers from writing what and how they want), and fabulous prizes await the winners.

Not to mention the immortal fame and ECQLC (eye-catching query letter candy) that winning such an award would doubtless entail.

The deadline for entry is Monday, May 18. To get those of you who have not yet entered inspired, I shall be devoting the rest of this week to continuing our discussion of ways in which writers are discouraged from sharing their stories, their writing, or even their opinions with the world at large.

In other words, to further exposition on the contest’s essay topic.

Not entirely coincidentally, today, I’d like to talk about a brand-new collection of essays on censorship edited by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, BURN THIS BOOK: PEN Writers Speak Out on the Power of the Word (HarperStudio). Given the subject matter, I had picked it up in the expectation that it would provide a tremendous amount of food for thought about our ongoing subject; what came as a pleasant surprise was how squarely some of the essays in it spoke to writers about the problems of self-expression that are not externally imposed.

Before I get too carried away, here’s the publisher’s blurb for the book. I added the links, so anyone who is interested may learn more about the authors cited:

Published in conjunction with the PEN American Center, Burn this Book is a powerful collection of essays that explore the meaning of censorship, and the power of literature to inform the way we see the world, and ourselves. Contributors include literary heavyweights like Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk, David Grossman, Nadine Gordimer discusses the role of the writer as observer, and as someone who sees “what is really taking place.” She looks to Proust, Oe, Flaubert, and Graham Greene to see how their philosophy squares with her own, ultimately concluding, “Literature has been and remains a means of people rediscovering themselves.” “In Freedom to Write,” Orhan Pamuk elegantly describes escorting Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter around Turkey and how that experience changed his life.

As Americans. we often take our freedom of speech for granted. When we talk about censorship, we talk about China, the former Soviet Union. But the recent presidential election has shined a spotlight on profound acts of censorship in our own backyard. Both provocative and timely, Burn this Book includes a sterling list of award winning writers; it is sure to ignite spirited dialogue.

If some of those names sound familiar, it’s because the only reason that some of them aren’t on the current short list for the Nobel Prize in Literature is that most of these writers have already won it, and some of the others have already passed on to That Great Literary Salon in the Sky. (That, and the fact that I mentioned Graham Greene on this very blog only yesterday might have left him rattling around regular readers’ brainpans.)

This is, in other words, not just a book of commentary by writers on writing. It’s a book of commentary by WRITERS on WRITING.

The Who’s Who line-up is part of the fun of this book, actually, insofar as a serious collection of essays on the horrors of censorship can be said to be fun: quite a number of these essays involve exceedingly well-known authors whom we all admire writing about the work of exceedingly well-known authors that they admire. Let me tell you, if you’ve never seen John Updike gush about the bravery of Henry Miller’s early novels, or Francine Prose sigh about how she wishes she had known Roberto Bolaño — well, suffice it to say the besotted reader is a side of an Eminènce Grise one seldom sees.

Since pretty much all writers start out life as besotted readers, it’s rather refreshing to behold the greats owning up to it. And hey, I’m not too proud to admit it: I did feel incrementally cooler, literarily speaking, upon seeing that Ms. Prose and I share an admiration for Wallace Shawn’s THE DESIGNATED MOURNER — but of that excellent play, more follows below.

This volume’s tendency to praise means, among other things, that BURN THIS BOOK is an absolutely terrific source for what I like to call good book surfing — learning what books have influenced authors one loves, tracking those works down, and reading them. I know of few better ways to gain a sense of being part of a literary tradition.

(The months I spent following the reading tips Jane Austen so carefully laid out in NORTHANGER ABBEY completely changed my understanding of 18th-century female authorship, for instance. Aunt Jane’s shelves were apparently stuffed to the gills with women’s writing — which I imagine would come as something of a surprise to all of the compilers of English literature syllabi who habitually present her as having sprung into literary history as a complete anomaly. And don’t even get me started on what Anne Brontë — whose brilliant novel about substance abuse, THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL, was dismissed by contemporary critics as “utterly unfit to be put into the hands of girls,” speaking of disregarded voices — or Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley were reading in their spare time.)

I also found it both fascinating and amusing to see really, really famous authors incorporate the same essay-writing tactics that, say, a high school junior might use in making a case against censorship. Who’d have thought, for instance, that Updike, surely enough of a literary name to express his own opinions unaided, would feel the need to justify his statements about how difficult writers find their work by citing what Flaubert said of his own struggles?

And after having spent many years patiently explaining to university students that defining one’s terms in an essay did not mean just opening the nearest dictionary and reproducing what’s printed there, what was I to make of Nadine Gordimer’s using the Oxford English Dictionary in precisely that manner in her essay? Oh, how glad I was that I’m no longer lecturing when I saw that. My students would surely have waved Ms. Gordimer’s piece in my face endlessly, as proof positive that it is possible to incorporate a verbatim dictionary definition gracefully into a written argument without boring readers to death.

But I would still urge amateurs not to try it at home. The twins goals of defining one’s terms in an essay are to demonstrate that one knows what one is talking about and to make sure that the reader does as well, not merely to plagiarize what some underpaid linguist at Funk & Wagnall’s said about a particular word or phrase. For this reason, hyper-literalists tend not to make the best essay-writers.

Despite undermining one of my first rules of academic essay-writing, I would highly recommend BURN THIS BOOK to readers of high school and college age. Why? Well, because this book contains so many good examples of the kinds of essays high school and college students are so frequently asked to write, it’s an inadvertently helpful how-to manual on how to structure and argue a piece on an abstract topic.

(Are the standardized test folks still giving vaguely provocative essay topics like, Censorship: is it ever a good idea? and Should a government try to legislate morality? They seem so open-ended, but the graders are invariably looking for a particular type of argument. In my day, the Achievement Test scorers would automatically spot you quite a few points if you managed to work Rosa Parks’ historic bus ride into your essay, regardless of the topic. The point of academic writing is not necessarily knock-your-socks-off style, if you catch my drift.)

For this reason, BURN THIS BOOK seems like a natural to assign in a composition course, to teach young writers the tricks o’ the trade, as it were. Or perhaps it would make more sense in a literature class. I would slap it onto the syllabus right after THE GRAPES OF WRATH, to provoke some interesting discussion about the hows and whys of banning books, and just before THE CATCHER IN THE RYE.

Speaking of Nobel laureates, are you surprised to hear that THE GRAPES OF WRATH was ever banned? No kidding: schoolteachers all over the US had a hard time assigning it for decades, and not always because of that left-leaning speech that Henry Fonda, the Tom Joad of the movie, gives at the end. (But usually. You’d be amazed at how seldom clamorers against a book have actually read it; it’s not unheard-of for parents to go roaring into school board meetings to scream about a scene from the movie version of an assigned book, only to learn that the objectionable bits were the filmmaker’s invention. The protests over the movie version of THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, for instance, were over a love scene that wasn’t particularly startling in the book; what brought the threat of excommunication onto novelist Nikos Kazantzakis’ head was the book’s treatment of Judas‘ role in the story, not the Big Guy’s.)

Wondered long enough what anyone who wasn’t worried about Communist infiltration of America’s high schools might have had against THE GRAPES OF WRATH? Not surprisingly, it’s a scene that didn’t make it into the movie, although it’s far from explicitly written: Rose of Sharon feeds a man who’s starved too long to be able to ingest solid food what, ahem, she might otherwise have fed her stillborn baby.

The reason I’m being a bit vague here, incidentally, is that some of my readers have access to this blog only through their school or public library computers. If I described the ending of the book any more clearly, the individual words that I would have to use might result in this page getting blocked by what are euphemistically known as parental control programs.

I know; it’s not pleasant to contemplate. But like it or not, it is the world in which we write.

By suggesting that BURN THIS BOOK might make for some interesting classroom discussion, I don’t mean to imply that that all of the essays here are equally good; they’re not. At times, the reader is left wondering what some of this undoubtedly well-written rambling has to do with the topic at hand, or even if there is a single topic tying the book’s many entries together. (Also, semicolons are not always used correctly throughout, something that’s likely to bug a teacher charged with explaining to students that ; and is in fact redundant in a list that contains a series of semicolons, since the earlier semicolons were ostensibly replacing and.)

The authors’ assigned briefs seem to have been rather disparate, as if contributors were merely asked to contribute an essay, rather than an essay on book-banning: collectively, this is a better collection of writing about writing than writing about censorship. As a result, the subtitle (PEN Writers Speak Out on the Power of the Word) is a substantially more accurate indication of what lies between the covers than the title.

Of course, being a book about writing is not necessarily a drawback in a collection of essays whose target market is writers. As one would expect from an edited volume by such a terrific bunch of writers (a contributor list that also includes Paul Auster, Pico Iyer, Russell Banks, and Ed Park, in case you were wondering), BURN THIS BOOK abounds in really glorious quotes, the kind that aspiring writers like to jot down on little scraps of paper and tape to their computer monitors to inspire them in moments of creative desperation.

Seriously, there is some lovely, inspiring stuff here. Take, for instance:

“A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.” -Toni Morrison

“When we write, we feel the world in flux, elastic, full of possibilities — unfrozen…I write, and the world does not close in on me. It does not grow smaller. It moves in the direction of what is open, future, possible. I imagine, and the act of imagination revives me. I am not fossilized or paralyzed in the face of predators. I invent characters. Sometimes I feel as if I am digging people out of the ice in which reality has encased them. But perhaps, more than anything, the person I am digging out at the moment is myself.” — David Grossman

“Thus the true task of the novelist is to dramatize first for himself or herself and ultimately for the rest of us what it is to be human in our time and for all time. What it is to be human in our place and in every place. As a species, we have always depended upon our storytellers to tell us what it means to be human. To be ourselves.” — Russell Banks.

“The artist’s personality has an awkward ambivalence: he is a cave dweller who yet hopes to be pursued into his cave…J.D. Salinger wrote a masterpiece, The Catcher in the Rye, recommending that readers who enjoy a book call up the author; then he spent his next twenty years avoiding the telephone.” — John Updike

Okay, so I thought that last one was sort of funny. My point is, there’s a lot of rich ore here for the writer searching for insight to mine.

Finally — and most relevant to our ongoing series — despite a certain range of topic, most of these essays have quite a few interesting things to say on censorship. Or, more precisely, about the kinds of things than can happen to people who write the truth when those in power don’t want those truths bruited about.

As Wallace Shawn’s THE DESIGNATED MOURNER (I told you I’d be coming back to it) makes so mournfully clear, the writers, the artists, the truth-tellers tend to be among the first carted off in times of great fear. The world is substantially less interesting for it — and less safe, my friends, for people like us.

BURN THIS BOOK reminds us to ask ourselves every so often when we look at the world around us, gathering impressions to inform our writing: what stories are going unheard? Whose voices are not particularly audible, from a literary perspective? Which voices are actively discouraged, and which do the fine folks who run publishing houses just not think will sell very well?

To share some questions that popped into my mind when I first began to contemplate running this series: what does the reader of mainstream memoir currently know about the kind of prison conditions that guest blogger Shaun Attwood told us about last weekend? Heck, how much does the mainstream novel reader know about the other side of the legal equation, what goes on behind the beautifully-veneered doors of the high-powered law firms Mary Hutchings Reed wrote about? If those inside these institutions don’t share with the world how they run, how precisely are the rest of us to find out? Telepathy?

And how much does the fear of riling nay-sayers affect what we ask readers are able to find on the shelves? Considering how hot narrators with mental disabilities have been over the last few years, why do readers so seldom see book either about or by people with physical disabilities, as Eileen Cronin brought to our attention in April? Does a hot-button political debate actually have to be over before the publishing world would get excited about an intriguing memoir like Beren deMotier’s, which couldn’t possibly be more timely? How much does the prospect of negative reader reaction cause even established authors to alter their content in order to avoid controversy, as Bob Tarte discussed?

These questions trouble me in the dead of night; honestly, they do. And what’s more, they should.

Yet while all writers are potentially affected by censorship, subtle and otherwise, we don’t tend to talk much amongst ourselves the more draconian ways in which it is wielded, up to and including imprisoning or even killing outspoken authors. Those possibilities certainly deserve more of a place in writerly discussion of what does and doesn’t get published than we usually hear — and, to be candid, what you hear from me here on this blog.

For the most part, the untold stories and as-yet-undiscovered voices we discuss are ones that are having trouble pleasing someone with the authority to get them published, rather than the ones that must overcome actual legal barriers or strong social taboos in order to see the light of day at all. As a result, writers’ conferences, writers’ fora, and yes, blogs like this one tend to focus upon finding a market for our work, or better ways to touch the heart of a reader, or decoding the often perplexing ways of agencies and publishing houses.

So an alien from another planet landing in the middle of your garden-variety North American writers’ gathering would probably assume that a great undiscovered writer’s voice not being heard is primarily the result of her submissions being rejected or ignored, rather than, say, a heavily-enforced prohibition upon writing anything remotely critical about her government, or laws that ban a writer from offending someone else religious sensibilities. “My, what a lot of freedom creative artists have here,” E.T. might conclude.

That’s not meant as a criticism of the very practical concerns of those trying to get published — far from it. It’s completely natural that worrying about freedom of expression worldwide may not be the most immediate concern for a writer who is trying to find an agent for a torrid romance involving a country doctor and a cowgirl or hoping to publish a science fiction trilogy on the colonization of the Crab Nebula. At that juncture, it’s certainly understandable if trying to second-guess what the gatekeepers of the book world want to see is of far more absorbing interest than which might be happen to a writer one doesn’t know personally someplace else.

Heck, after seemingly endless rounds of querying, a series of rejected submissions, and/or being told flatly by an agent or editor after a verbal pitch, “Oh, there’s just no market for that kind of book right now,” plenty of writers feel that there’s an active conspiracy against their kind of work.

In a moment of feeling unheard — which, let’s face it, forms a large part of the frustration of trying to find an agent or waiting for one’s agent to sell one’s books — a collection of essays like this that deals with more drastic means of keeping writing (and writers) out of the public eye can be very useful for reestablishing perspective. Sometimes, we could all use someone who has been down the path before us to remind us that it is indeed worth taking — and that as writers, we are all part of a global community that some people are always going to find threatening.

I just mention.

While I’m at it, I’ll also mention that BURN THIS BOOK is available on Amazon and at Borders.

Does all of this high-falutin’ talk about the importance of considering the situation of writers worldwide mean that I’m abandoning the attention to nit-picky, practical details for which Author! Author! has become so justly famed? Of course not; rest assured, bread-and-butter issues will once again abound here soon.

But in the meantime, consider giving some thought to the big picture. And, as always, keep up the good work!

The tragedy of the self-silenced writer

I had planned to write my own post on subtle censorship today, as it’s the first day in quite some time that I’m not going to be yammering at you about the rigors of standard format and I’ve been dying to jump into the conversation. Over the weekend, however, a couple of the comments on guest blogger Shaun Attwood’s post — who knew it would generate such a plethora of responses from readers? — got me thinking about a deadly form of censorship: the kind writers sometimes impose upon themselves.

Since I’ve depressed myself into a stupor thinking about it (not the best state of mind while on a writing retreat, alas), rather than write about it afresh and be-glumming myself still more, I’m going to re-run an earlier post on the subject. Some of you may remember the story; I try to honor Marc’s memory by telling some version of it here about once per year.

This is the story that Marc did not live to tell. He censored himself in many, many ways, including the ultimate one, before he could.

A moment of silence, please: I’m giving a eulogy today.

My friend Marc, a genuinely gifted poet and playwright, died a few years ago, and I, as one of the few people in our college class who was reading his writing hot off the keyboard, was asked to give his eulogy at our reunion. One of the liabilities (or joys, depending upon how one looks at it) of going to a reunion-happy school lies in the inevitability of, as time passes, more and more of one’s classmates requiring eulogies.

Today, it’s my turn to step up to the podium.

Marc was only 39; I had known him since we were both 18. Brilliantly talented, he lost faith in his own writing before he could find the right agent for his work. And so, out of respect for him, I am going to step aside from our ongoing series and devote today to urging you to maintain faith in your own writing talent.

Marc was one of those writers whose promise was obvious to everyone early. Year after year, all throughout school, he won poetry and essay prizes; his English teachers adored him as the kind of super-creative, insightful student who comes along only once in a blue moon; his basketball coach praised him as the ideal of a hard-working athlete with natural talent. Confident in his abilities, he never doubted that triumph would continue to follow triumph for the rest of his life.

Yet as every high school hero is shocked to learn, the rules change radically after graduation.

The talents that spelled success within the sheltered confines of a private school are not automatically lauded in the world outside, and as many a crestfallen college freshman can tell you, there are always more than enough highly-praised high school Juliets on campus to fill all the roles in a college production of ROMEO AND JULIET forty times over.

Big fish, welcome to the ocean; you’re not in your little pond anymore.

At Harvard, Marc was surrounded by brilliant young writers from all across the country and all around the world. His work was appreciated, because it was very good, but no longer was he the outstanding talent. While some writers might have embraced a new-found community of very talented people, Marc went the more common route: in the midst of such stellar competition, despite the fact that he was clearly able to hold his own with the best of them, he started to doubt himself.

Heaven help us, he started to wonder if he could really write.

Oh, if only we could all rewind our lives back to the point before we started to question our own talent! To before the demons of self-doubt and endless internal criticism started to nag us! How many among us have not been turned away from our computers at least once by the fear that our best was just not good enough?

Marc did keep writing, but increasingly, he kept his work to himself, thus reducing to zero the chance that it might see publication. He ceased entering contests; he gave up querying magazines; his writing resume languished. Like so many aspiring writers, he began to believe that the slightest defect poisoned an entire work, so he stopped being able to incorporate good criticism.

So what did he do with all of that pent-up creative energy? He wrote a solid first draft of an interesting novel — I know, because I’m one of the few human beings he allowed to read it. It would have been very marketable after a single revision, news that should have brought joy to his heart.

Instead, after only one or two rejections from agents, he stuffed it in a drawer, never to see the light of day again. As thousands of aspiring writers do every day.

He next turned his talents to writing plays, but there, too, even the most minor criticism seemed to make his confidence wilt. Eager at first, he soon came to regard attaining finalist status in a competition as evidence that he had failed abysmally.

Like so many aspiring writers, he fell into the trap of expecting every word that sprang from his fingertips to be perfect without revision. As, again, do thousands.

It’s very seldom the case, even with the most brilliant of writers, but it’s an easy trick to play on yourself: if you were truly talented, the imp of perfectionism whispers in our ears late at night, you wouldn’t have to struggle. The world would be beating a path to your door, unasked, to read your work.

This isn’t plausible, of course. It is utterly impossible to sell work that you don’t send out, just as it is impossible to win contests that you don’t enter. Yet self-doubt would rather not try than to risk defeat.

Because I’m a generally upbeat person, Marc and I frequently argued over our respective expectations of the literary market. He was astonished that I just kept plowing ahead, regardless of rejection, until agents and editors started saying yes; having attained success so easily in the past, he was suspicious of incremental gains made through persistent effort. Yet by insisting that his own work had to be born perfect before he would allow others to see it, he made it harder and harder to get himself to sit down and write at all.

This is a very common logical conundrum for writers, one I tried to understand at the time by incorporating an analogy gleaned from Neil Fiore’s excellent book on procrastination, THE NOW HABIT (without which, truth compels me to state, I probably would not have completed my master’s thesis). Fiore compares any major task to walking the length of a ten-foot board that is six inches wide.

When the board is sitting on the ground, getting across it would be an easy task, right? Yet the procrastinator worries about crossing the board perfectly — and thus waits until conditions are perfect. As the deadline nears, it becomes clearer and clearer that the task is getting harder to do well — thus emotionally raising that board until it feels like it is stretched between two five-story buildings.

Now, crossing the board is terrifying, as the stakes of failing are much more severe. What a procrastinator does to end this situation, Fiore argues, is to set fire to his own end of the board, metaphorically speaking: with absolutely no time to spare, perfection in execution does not matter nearly so much as simply scooting across the board as fast as possible.

For Marc, as for many, many writers, a similar logic applies to completing a book — or a play, or a poem, or a contest entry. They do not want just to walk across that board — they want to do so in such a memorable style that the admiring multitude will be telling their grandchildren about it for generations to come.

With such lofty intentions, that board is not just stretched between adjacent buildings; it is wavering in the wind between the Empire State building in New York and the Transamerica pyramid in San Francisco.

No wonder it’s terrifying: effectively, every sentence the writer produces has to be the greatest since the invention of the pen.

Marc, and writers like him, expect inspiration to waft them into a state of such divine creativity that all of their latent promise as artists will undergo some sort of instantaneous alchemy that produces the philosopher’s stone of writing, the book that is perfect with no revision.

Then, and only then, will they believe in their hearts that they are genuinely talented.

Every single time that inspiration, as is the way with muses, comes and goes at its own sweet pleasure, the self-doubter comes to doubt his own talent more. And even when, as in Marc’s case, inspiration does hit hard enough to produce a stellar short piece, that success apparently does not count as proof: it could have been a fluke, or it wasn’t a big enough success.

Or it was a short story, rather than a novel, or it was a genre work instead of literary fiction, or it was literary fiction and unlikely to appeal to a broad mainstream market. Any excuse will do, because there is no one more voracious for justification than a talented person in the throes of self-doubt.

Painful? You bet. And painful to watch? Absolutely.

I am telling you this, not to criticize Marc — that’s not usually the point of a eulogy, is it? — but in the hope that his story might help inspire those of you out there who are afraid that you’re not talented enough to start the book you’ve always dreamed of writing, or whose fears have paralyzed you into stopping in mid-draft or mid-revision to give yourselves a bit of a break.

Instead of abusing yourself for not producing perfection every time you sit down at a keyboard, why not reward yourself for sitting down there at all? Instead of berating yourself for being in the midst of writing a novel for a year or two or ten, why not break the task up into manageable smaller goals, and celebrate those achievements as you reach them?

There’s no better cure for self-doubt than tangible evidence of talent, and you’re more likely to convince yourself that you are indeed gifted if you don’t demand that you produce THE DIVINE COMEDY every time you sit down to write a poem.

Regardless of how talented you are.

Start small — remember, even the best-upholstered ego is a fragile thing, and it needs to be rebuilt with care. You could start by setting time goals for your writing, logging in the minutes as you go, or set yourself a page goal for each writing session. Keep track of your successes, so later on, when you start to berate yourself for not writing as often as you should, or as much, you can look back in your log and say, “Hey! I wrote for ten hours last week!” or “Hey! I have been averaging three pages per day!”

Start there, because no matter what the imps of doubt whisper in your ear, there’s never been a book written yet without the author’s sitting down day after day and writing.

So there.

If these goals seem too tiny to you, requiring too many added together to reach the goal of a completed book, remember this: prolific writer Graham Greene wrote only 147 words per day.

Which, I suspect, is why his dialogue exchanges are so short. Most of us can easily expend 147 words in debating where to go for lunch.

Greene carried around a little notebook, and (the story goes) would not allow himself his first drink of the day until after he had penned word 147. Now, I wouldn’t recommend emulating the drink part, at least not on a daily basis, but his strategy was basically sound: those words, few in and of themselves, added up to many very highly-respected novels.

Oh, and a Nobel prize in literature.

However you decide to go about it, please start easing up on yourself soon, because there isn’t always time to change.

I tell you this from experience, because I shall never be able to wipe from my mind that saddest of literary sights: a brilliant, partially-revised novel sitting in a drawer, awaiting the beneficial touch of a writer who can never come back to it again.

Keep up the good work, my friends. Your talent is worth it.

Jon’s Jail Journal, by guest blogger Shaun Attwood


Welcome again to our ongoing series on censorship, subtle and otherwise. Fair warning: today’s is of the not-so-subtle variety, so as they say on television, viewer discretion is advised.

I’m quite serious: this is most emphatically not going to be a guest post for the queasy. It is, however, an important voice talking about often-taboo subjects — and, I think, a fairly stunning tale about a writer struggling against incredible odds to tell a story that desperately needed (and still needs) to be told.

Therefore, I’m delighted to be introducing today’s guest author, Shaun Attwood, blogger extraordinaire. Since 2004, he has been writing Jon’s Jail Journal — and yes, in response to what half of you just thought, it was not safe for him to write under his own name when he first began trying to expose the grim realities of prison life.

Inexplicably, the folks who ran the prison took exception to that. I imagine that the authorities in the Dreyfus case objected to Emile Zola’s writing about that, too.

As my parents liked to point approximately once every 42 seconds throughout my excruciatingly literary childhood, that’s precisely what good writers are supposed to do, isn’t it?

To give you a sense of the scope of the incredible story Shaun has to tell, here is a blurb for his memoir-in-progress — which I, for one, cannot wait to read — that he was kind enough to share with me:

Green Bologna and Pink Boxers: Surviving Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Jail is an account of my journey through America’s most notorious jail system, a netherworld revolving around gang violence, drug use and racism. It provides a revealing glimpse into the tragedy, brutality, comedy and eccentricity of jail life and the men inside. It is also a story of my redemption, as incarceration leads to introspection, and a passion for literature, philosophy, and yoga. The book ends with me starting Jon’s Jail Journal, exposing the conditions in the jail.

Call me zany, but I suspect he knows more than most of the rest of us about institutional censorship. So I am positively overjoyed that he has agreed to share some of his thoughts on the subject with all of us here at Author! Author!

Those of you reading in the UK may already be familiar with Shaun’s writing, either through excerpts of his prison diary published in The Guardian or the numerous articles on his efforts to bring public attention to appalling conditions for prisoners. He also speaks to young people about his jail experiences and the consequences of his drug use.

Even if prison memoir is not your proverbial cup of tea — even if memoir isn’t your usual reading material — please try not to turn away from the horrendous story Shaun is about to share with you. Read it, and read his bio, below. Consider visiting his blog to read what a talented writer has to say about being denied the right to share his writing with the world.

As writers, no one knows better than we the vital importance of self-expression to the human soul; this entire series has been about that, hasn’t it? After all, telling the truth, regardless of obstacles, is what good writers are supposed to do.

So please join me in welcoming a very brave and interesting writer, Shaun Attwood. Take it away, Shaun!


Towards the end of my stay at the Madison Street jail in Phoenix, Arizona, I asked a guard how Sheriff Joe Arpaio got away with flagrantly violating federal law by maintaining such subhuman conditions.

“The world has no idea what really goes on in here,” he replied.

I decided that was about to change.

sheriff_joeSome of you may be familiar with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the star of the reality TV show, Smile…You’re Under Arrest! He’s the sheriff who feeds his prisoners green bologna, puts them to work on chain gangs, and makes them wear black-and-white bee stripes and pink underwear.

He has labelled himself “America’s toughest sheriff,” but he never mentions that he is the most sued sheriff in America due to the deaths, violence and medical negligence in a jail system subject to investigation by human rights organisations including Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union.

In a maximum-security cell — about the size of a bus-stop shelter, with two steel bunks and a seatless toilet — I used a golf pencil sharpened on the cement-block wall to document the characters, cockroaches, suicide attempts, and deaths. Wearing only pink boxers, I wrote at the tiny stool and table bolted to the wall, trying to ignore the discomfort from my bleeding bedsores. Outdoor temperatures — that sometimes soared up to 120 °F — converted the cell into a concrete oven, making it difficult to write without the sweat from my hands and arms moistening the paper.

Here are the first few paragraphs I wrote:

19 Feb 04

The toilet I sleep next to is full of sewage. We’ve had no running water for three days. Yesterday, I knew we were in trouble when the mound in our steel throne peaked above sea level.

Inmates often display remarkable ingenuity during difficult occasions and this crisis has resulted in a number of my neighbours defecating in the plastic bags the mouldy breakfast bread is served in. For hours they kept those bags in their cells, then disposed of them downstairs when allowed out for showers. As I write, inmates brandishing plastic bags are going from cell door to door proudly displaying their accomplishments.

The whole building reeks like a giant Portaloo. Putting a towel over the toilet in our tiny cell offers little reprieve. My neighbour, Eduardo, is suffering diarrhoea from the rotten chow. I can’t imagine how bad his cell stinks.

I am hearing that the local Health Department has been contacted. Hopefully they will come to our rescue soon.

Fearing reprisals from guards notorious for murdering prisoners, I wrote under the pseudonym Jon. As the mail officer could inspect outgoing letters, posting my words was too risky. To get my words out undetected by the staff, I employed my aunt.

She visited every week, and I was allowed to release property to her, such as mail I’d received, legal papers, and books I’d read. The visitation staff’s chief concern was stopping incoming contraband such as drugs and tobacco, so they never thoroughly examined outgoing property.

I hid my words in the property I released to my aunt. She smuggled them out of the jail, typed them up and emailed them to my parents who posted them to the Internet. Considering the time involved in maintaining a blog, I was lucky to have such outside help.

That’s how Jon’s Jail Journal came about. It was one of the first prison blogs, and went on to attract international media attention after excerpts were published in The Guardian.

After serving almost six years for money laundering and drugs, I’m now a free man. I’ve kept Jon’s Jail Journal going, so the friends I made inside can share their stories.

Like most prisoners, those in Arizona do not have Internet access. To get their writing online, they need outside help. Unfortunately, most of them do not have family members willing to run a blog for them.

I started Jon’s Jail Journal unaware Arizona had been the first state to censor its prisoners from the Internet. This came about after the widow of a murder victim read an online pen-pal ad in which her husband’s murderer described himself as a kind-hearted lover of cats. A law passed in 2000 carried penalties for prisoners writing for the Internet. Privileges could be taken away, sentences lengthened.

The freedom to speak without censorship or limitation is guaranteed by the First Amendment, so the ACLU stepped in and challenged this law. In May 2003, Judge Earl Carroll declared the law unconstitutional. Since then, no other state has attempted to introduce such a law.

But even with that law repealed, any inmate writing openly about prison is running the risk of reprisals from the staff and the prisoners. The threat of being harmed or killed by your custodians or neighbours is a strong form of censorship.

I always got permission from the prisoners I wrote about. I hate to think of the consequences if I hadn’t. But even with that safeguard in place, I still ran into occasional problems.

I once wrote about how the prisoners made syringes from commissary items. A prisoner received a copy of that blog in the mail, and circulated it on the yard. Some of the older white gang members gave the order to have me smashed, claiming they were concerned the staff would read that blog and stop the inmate store from selling the items the prisoners needed to make the syringes.

Fortunately, I was writing stories about some well-established prisoners at the time. Like Two Tonys, a Mafia associate classified as a mass murderer. Frankie, a Mexican Mafia hitman. C-Ducc, a Crip with one of the toughest reputations on the yard. They intervened, pointing out that the staff were well aware of how the prisoners made syringes, and that I hadn’t divulged anything that the staff didn’t already know about. After a few tense days during which they instructed me not to walk the yard alone, the matter died down.


To avoid conflict with the administration, I never used real staff or prisoner names. Using real names would have enabled the administration to classify me as a threat to the security of the institution. If you are deemed such a threat, the administration can invoke laws that strip you of your standard human rights. You can lose your privileges, be housed in the system’s darkest quarters, and if the staff really have it in for you, you may suddenly receive a gorilla-sized cellmate intent on using you as his plaything.

On that front, I must credit Shannon Clark — my friend in prison who writes the blog Persevering Prison Pages — for being a much braver man than I. He has sprinkled guards’ names liberally throughout his blog, and he’s not exactly praising them for their humanity. Shannon has a reputation for being fast to slap lawsuits on the staff, which I hope continues to protect him from major retaliation.

After my release in December 2007, I figured my censorship battles with the Arizona Department of Corrections were over. I was maintaining the blog mostly for the stories of the friends I’d made inside, stories they were mailing to me in England. But in August 2008, I stopped receiving mail from them. Then in September, I received a disturbing email:

I wanted to let you know that *** called me today with a message for you. I guess the prison spoke to all of the guys that write to you and told them they are not allowed to write to you anymore. He thinks it’s because they (the prison) don’t like what is being said on your blog. It is a free country isn’t it? Can they do that? It’s ridiculous!

Attempting to sabotage Jon’s Jail Journal, certain staff members had ordered the contributors to stop writing to me. If they continued to write to me, they would receive disciplinary sanctions such as losing their visits, phone calls, and commissary.

This violation of their freedom of speech earned me a nerve-racking live spot on Sky’s headline news. The publicity attracted a prisoners’-rights attorney, and the problem eventually went away.

With all of these obstacles, it’s unsurprising that so few prisoners are writing for the Internet.

Googling for prison bloggers, I immediately noticed the absence of women in this fledgling community. I found one writer, but she had been released. Hoping to bring the voices of women prisoners online, I wrote to two women — Renee, a lifer in America serving 60 years, and Andrea, a Scottish woman arrested for the attempted murder of her abusive boyfriend in England. I’m delighted that these two women are now regular contributors to Jon’s Jail Journal, giving their unique insights on what it’s like in women’s prisons.

To keep Jon’s Jail Journal going, I’ve had to overcome censorship from many angles, some foreseen, some unexpected. The blog has managed to survive these challenges, and to build up a loyal readership over the years. It has become a bridge to the outside world for my prisoner friends. They really enjoy the feedback from the public, and some of them receive pen pals from around the world. Through blogging, they are cultivating their own writing skills, and focusing on something positive in such a negative environment. Jon’s Jail Journal has come a long way since when I lived with the cockroaches.

shaun-attwoodShaun Attwood grew up in North West England where he was an early participant in the burgeoning rave scene that soon took over the whole country. Graduating from Liverpool University in 1991 with a business degree, he immigrated to Phoenix, Arizona to try his luck in the world of finance, and rose quickly through the ranks to become a top-producing stockbroker.

But it was not quite plain sailing. Shaun lost control of his life and finances in the mid-nineties, declared bankruptcy and quit his job.

The rave bug had never left him, and Shaun started to throw raves in Arizona while investing in technology stocks online. By 1999, he was living in a luxurious mountainside home in Tucson’s Sin Vacas, working as a day trader in the day and partying at night. It was the time of the dot-com bubble and he made over a million on paper, but the bubble was soon to burst and Shaun lost most of his fortune and moved back to Phoenix.

In May 2002, he was arrested in Scottsdale during a SWAT-team dawn raid, and alleged to be the head of an organisation involved in a club-drug conspiracy. The local media described him as “bigger than Sammy the Bull.” Facing a life sentence, he entered a lengthy legal battle.

In 2004, Shaun started the blog,Jon’s Jail Journal, documenting the inhumane conditions at the cockroach-infested Madison Street jail run by Sheriff Joe Arpaio. After two years of being held on remand while three trial dates were cancelled, Shaun signed a plea bargain admitting guilt to money laundering and drug offences. He was sentenced to 9 ½ years, of which he served almost 6.

Shaun had only read finance books prior to his arrest. While incarcerated, he submerged himself in literature – reading 268 books in 2006 alone, including many literary classics. By reading original texts in philosophy and psychology he sought to better understand himself and his past behaviour. His sister sent him a book on yoga, which he still practices.

In September 2004, blog excerpts were published in The Guardian attracting further media attention, including several BBC news stories.

Shaun was released in December 2007, and has since kept Jon’s Jail Journal going by posting prison stories sent to him from the friends he made inside. In July 2008, Shaun won a first prize, a Koestler/Hamish Hamilton Award, for a short story, which he read to an audience at the Royal Festival Hall. In February 2009, Shaun moved to London to work for the McLellan Practice speaking to audiences of youths about his jail experiences and the consequences of his drug taking. He is presently working on his memoir, Green Bologna and Pink Boxers: Surviving Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Jail.

The marketability of the unexpected, by guest blogger Mary Hutchings Reed


Welcome back to our ongoing-but-episodic series on the various species of censorship authors today face. While we’re going to be talking about formal, state-sponsored censorship later in this series, this month, I’ve asked a number of the most interesting authors I know to share their thoughts on ways in which writers are discouraged from writing what they want — and how they want.

Today, I am delighted to introduce the brilliantly incisive Mary Hutchings Reed, author of the startling COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN a Star’s “Hot Book of the Week.” Based on Mary’s personal knowledge of what goes on behind those beautifully venerred law firm doors, lawyer Kathleen Hannigan shrewdly plays the partnership game with her whole heart until she is called to testify in a sex discrimination suit and is forced to choose between her partners and her principles.

A prolific writer, Mary writes across a wide variety of categories, from novels to short stories (including one in the most recent issue of Ars Medica to, believe it or not, a well-received musical comedy about golf. But her first novel is why I blandished her into speaking to us today.

COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN is a book that flies in the face of prevailing notions of what goes on in law firms — including those behind-the-scenes thrillers written by authors who, like Mary, have spent years in the trenches. Unlike some of those glossier works, this reads like the real thing because it is.

Why might that have proven problematic for the book at the marketing stage? Well, remember our chat a few weeks ago about book categories, those conceptual containers into which a manuscript must fit in order to be marketable to a major US publisher? While the industry is always looking for fresh book concepts, as well as new spins on well-worn stories, it’s sometimes difficult to convince agents and editors that an audience exists for a kind of book that doesn’t fit comfortably into any of those boxes.

Why, you ask? By definition, the only way to demonstrate positively that there are readers already eager to buy a story would be the successful recent publication of a similar story, right? So how one prove that readers would want to buy a particular kind of book, but have not yet hat the chance.

COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN was not the kind of book agents and editors tend to expect people with Mary’s staggeringly impressive credentials to write — and this made it a rather problematic to market as well. But I’ll let Mary tell you all about that. (If after you read today’s post, you want to learn more about CKH’s very interesting road to publication, please see my interview series on the subject beginning here.)

I shall only add this: women writers (especially good literary ones like Mary) often get pigeonholed, as any agented mainstream or literary fiction writer who has been stunned to find her work summarily recategorized as women’s fiction can attest. If a writer is female and so is the author, yet the novel is not genre fiction, that category assignment tends to be automatic.

And that can be limiting, because within women’s fiction, a protagonist is expected first and foremost to be likable. Of course, depending upon genre, all protagonists are subject to the criticism of not being likable Which makes some sense, since the reader is going to need to feel positively enough about the protagonist in order to want to follow him or her as the plot unfolds, right? Yet as those of you who have been pitching, querying, or submitting a novel or memoir centered on a strong female protagonist may already know from personal experience, highly educated female characters — like, say, lawyers — or ones engaged in professions where aggressiveness is a positive trait — like, say, lawyers — are often, if not dismissed out of hand as not particularly likable, are at least under suspicion of soon becoming so. That can be very limiting for a writer trying to produce a convincing protagonist acting within a realistic present-day work situation.

I just mention.

Please join me in a big round of applause for today’s guest blogger, Mary Hutchings Reed. Take it away, Mary!


My first novel, Courting Kathleen Hannigan, was a disappointment to literary agents. I was a lawyer. I was female. I was from Chicago. Unread, they’d anointed me the next Scottie Turow or at least Scottoline.

But I let them down. I’d written a novel about the life of a woman lawyer in a powerful law firm—the life of any person, actually, who has to overcome the handicap of being different in order to succeed — I’d not written the novel they were looking for, a legal thriller by woman lawyer.

Adding insult to injury, more than one said how well-written CKH was, but lamented that it had a very limited audience. When I had the chance to speak with agents at literary conferences, I heard comments like, “Who wants to read about a woman lawyer in a law firm?”

My first defense of course was that there were more than 300,000 women lawyers in this country, and another couple hundred thousand paralegals, and they all had mothers and friends (check Facebook) and secretaries and husbands and brothers and fathers who might want to know what their little girl’s life was life, especially in the early years of women in law. (I also knew, from readers of the novel in manuscript form, to know that much of what was true in the seventies and eighties continues to plague women in the profession today, although perhaps in more insidious, less visible ways.)

My second response, of course, was just that Kathleen Hannigan happens to a strong and interesting woman character attempting to exercise some power over her own destiny—certainly a universal-enough theme. (It hadn’t occurred to me, until Anne asked to guest here, that “powerful woman character” was itself a no-no, but it may be.)

“Yes, but it’s not a thriller.”
One could draw several different conclusions from my first encounter with the gatekeepers. You could conclude that publishers and literary agents aren’t interested in strong female characters or women characters wielding power. You could conclude that lawyers should stick to lawyering, with the exception of Turow, Grisham, Scottoline and other former prosecutors (or criminal defense lawyers) who can translate their blood-and-guts experiences into suspenseful (and commercially viable) plots.

You could conclude, quite rightly that practicing law at that powerful law firm is a helluva lot more lucrative than writing novels.

On the other hand, you could conclude that if a novel is that limited in its appeal, it ought to be self-published, since the audience—only half a million, off the top!—is also easily targeted. You could also conclude that if you a writer, you write; you write about the things that interest you and worry later about the commercial viability of your work product.

Luckily for me, I drew these last two conclusions, publishing Courting Kathleen Hannigan in the fall of 2007, and going on to write six more novels, two of which are now placed with an agent, April Eberhardt of Reece Halsey North.

(OK, these new novels are not about lawyers, but they are about strong women characters — a street musician and a mother dealing with her daughter’s sex-change operation in a small town. My agent was intrigued with these stories, even though I warned her they were doomed to failure: How many street musicians are there? Surely, not even half a million. And small towns? Lots, of course, but people don’t read books there, do they? And they certainly don’t buy books–they go to the library!)

Self-publishing Courting Kathleen Hannigan was a wonderful experience—I get new sales every day and “fan” mail from women of my generation (Yale Law ’76) thanking me for telling their story, for validating their experiences, for writing the social history of women in law so that today’s young women might understand how hard fought were their maternity leaves and diversity committees and mentoring programs.

I also get letters from audiences I hadn’t considered: a thirtyish insurance broker who serves the legal industry, a sixty-year old gay partner at a big firm who identifies with the story because, he, too, felt he was living a “double life” in the seventies, trying to be himself and to be the person the law firm assumed him to be.

So, I’ve learned that I was right about the audience for the book, and I was wrong to give heed to the “censors.” Nurses, secretaries, boyfriends, fathers, women in corporations—all have found Kathleen Hannigan to be a character they could relate to, admire, cry with, root for. If I’ve made a mistake in marketing Courting Kathleen Hannigan, it was in listening to the literary agents/censors who dubbed the book “for women lawyers only.” (Most of the reviews on Amazon, for instance, are from attorneys.)

In marketing the book, I concentrated there; I have not reached out broadly to corporate women generally, and only recently sent out a mailing to book clubs, joined Facebook, etc. (Visit my website for the book club questions/fact sheet.)

The nice thing about self-publishing: nothing stops me from doing now what I maybe should’ve done before — having now glimpsed how my thinking about my own book was warped by other people’s characterizations of it, I can do something about it. I can reach out to non-lawyer readers and assure them that if they are looking for a book about a powerful woman character (and given that you read Anne Mini’s blog, you probably like such characters), they should rush off to Amazon and buy now — either paperback or Kindle!

The point is, I suppose, that when you are aware of censorship, you can respond to it. The more insidious is the censorship that seeps in to our consciousness, as with my marketing of my first novel.

As writers, we need to be on-guard against the censorship of the marketplace, the censorship that could prevent our strong women characters from making it to the page in the first place. It would’ve been easy to conclude that the only book the publishing world wanted from me was a legal thriller, and I suppose I could have learned enough and borrowed enough from the genre to have turned one out.

But that’s not who I am as a writer; crime stories, like criminal law, don’t interest me, except on TV when I’m too worn out to pay attention to anything else. Strong women, women who take charge of their lives, women who seek power and women who wield power—they do intrigue me, and I enjoy meeting them, both real and imagined.

So, in order to write my second novel, and the third, and each one up to the seventh, which is in progress as we blog, I’ve had to forget the market, forget that I’m a lawyer, ignore those expectations for what a woman lawyer from Chicago will write about, and write.


marys-photo-jpeg.jpgEver since turning 40 a few years ago, Mary Hutchings Reed Mary has been trying to become harder to introduce, and, at 57, she finds she’s been succeeding. Her conventional resume includes both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Brown University (both completed within the same four years, and she still graduated Phi Beta Kappa), a law degree from Yale, and thirty-one years of practicing law, first with Sidley & Austin and then with Winston & Strawn, two of the largest firms in Chicago. She was a partner at both in the advertising, trademark, copyright, entertainment and sports law areas, and now is Of Counsel to Winston, which gives her time to write, do community service and pursue hobbies such as golf, sailing, tennis, and bridge.

For many years, she has served on the boards of various nonprofit organizations, including American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago, Off the Street Club and the Chicago Bar Foundation. She currently serves on the board of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago (and chair of its fundraising committee); Steel Beam Theatre, and her longest-standing service involvement, Lawyers for the Creative Arts.

Her current book, COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN, is available on Amazon or directly from the author herself on her website.

The first periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence


Many years ago, when I first started teaching roomfuls of aspiring writers how to write query letters and give face-to-face pitches to agents, I noticed something: there didn’t seem to be nearly enough writing credentials to go around. As valuable as previous publications, writing awards, fellowships, residencies, rave reviews from Saul Bellow, MFAs, and recent New York Times articles on one’s work with orphaned children in war zones undoubtedly were (and are) in attracting the attention of those who read manuscripts for a living, the overwhelming majority of writers seeking to market manuscripts would, when asked for their credentials, just look down, embarrassed.

When I began teaching writers how to construct their author bios, the problem seemed even more acute, even amongst those who already had publishing contracts in hand. No matter how fascinating the previously unpublished were in person (to me, anyway), they seemed to regard not having been paid before for their writing as proof positive that they didn’t really have anything significant to say about themselves to an agent or editor.

At the risk of sounding unsympathetic to this feeling, poppycock.

As those of you who have been reading this blog for awhile are, I hope, already aware, there are plenty of things that a writer who hasn’t yet been offered a book contract can do in order to ramp up her ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy, my term for all of those lovely credentials that go to make up a successful writer’s platform). Start a blog, for instance (hey, it’s writing for an audience on a deadline. Write free book reviews for a community newspaper. Take seminars with impressive-sounding names. Get your certificate in editing. Spend ten hours a week volunteering at a shelter for abandoned wombats, if that’s what your book is about.

Anything, in other words, that might catch Millicent the agency screener’s eye and cause her to exclaim, “My, but this is an interesting writer. I think I shall have to take a gander at his manuscript, pronto.” (For more tips on provoking this type of soul-satisfying exclamation, please see the BUILDING YOUR WRITING RÉSUMÉ and YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS categories on the list at right.)

I could wash my hands of the subject at this point, confident in glib advice swiftly administered, and walk away to enjoy the lovely weather outside. And I might, were I not fairly confident that my readers were not, on the whole, shallow and easily satisfied with the pat answer.

I mean, really: would someone who just wanted quick answers last more than ten minutes at Author! Author!? I think not.

So I decided that I was going to do something practical about it — the lack of credentials available for the previously unpublished or unMFA’d, that is, not catering to quick answer-seekers. Actually, I decided to do several things:

(1) Establish the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, as a helpful credential available for readers’ ECQLC;

(2) Establish the Author! Author! Awards for Junior Expressive Excellence for readers of pre-college age, as both future ECQLC and as a nifty credential that a gifted young writer could use on a college application;

(3) Focus the competition’s first writing contest on something genuinely important, a topic dear to writers’ hearts and one that I knew my readers would already have on their minds. This time around, the subject matter is going to be the same as our ongoing series of guest posts, with the winning entries forming the final guest slots on subtle censorship and how it affects writers.

In other words, make publishing credential part of the prize.

(4) Coordinate the announcement of the winners with the gala events surrounding my 1,000th blog post, scheduled for mid-June. (I know; time flies.)

I’ll fill you in on how to enter in a moment. But first, the important bit: the prizes.

What winners of the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence will get, other than ECQLC
Obviously, undying glory and years of boasting rights. However, for those of you looking for rewards a trifle more tangible, there will be goodies, too.

Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence
1 Grand Prize: a 1-hour Mini-Consult, scheduled at the winner’s convenience, and publication of the winning essay at Author! Author!

A Mini-Consult is a telephone service I’ve long offered to my editing clients and students, an unbroken chunk of my professional attention and expertise devoted solely to the discussion of a writer’s work. How you choose to utilize that time is up to you, as long as the discussion is limited to writing and marketing issues. Past satisfied Mini-Consulters have used the time to have me help them to:

*narrow down a book category once and for all;

*ferret out the problems in their query letters, synopses, and first pages of manuscripts;

*come up with a book’s selling points;

*cull through a list of agents to figure out who would be the best potential fit for a project;

*brainstorm about low-cost book promotion ideas;

*iron out the kinks in a book proposal;

*discuss craft issues, and

*talk though some of their frustration and confusion over how the publishing world works.

2 First Prizes: a 1/2-hour Mini-Consult and publication of the winning essay at Author! Author!

3 Second Prizes: a fresh-off-the-press copy of the PEN America Center’s collection of essays on writing censorship, BURN THIS BOOK (HarperStudio), edited by Toni Morrison.

Author! Author! Awards for Junior Expressive Excellence
1 Grand Prize: a 1/2-hour Mini-Consult and publication of the winning essay at Author! Author!

2 First Prizes: a fresh-off-the-press copy of the PEN America Center’s collection of essays on writing censorship, BURN THIS BOOK (HarperStudio), edited by Toni Morrison.

How to enter
1. Collect your thoughts on the issue of censorship, subtle or otherwise
For the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, the brief is quite straightforward: address precisely the same question I put to the established authors in the subtle censorship series. So how do YOU think writers are discouraged from writing or publishing what they want or how they want, and how does that discouragement affect what’s available for readers?

For Author! Author! Awards for Junior Expressive Excellence, the question is more targeted: what limits are placed on young people’s written freedom of expression? How do you think restricting what the young can and can’t write affects public understanding of how those who cannot yet vote think?

Because I hate literary contests that contain hidden rules, I’m going to be up front with you here: creativity counts. Surprise the judges with the subtlety of your insight. Show us a take on the world we’ve never seen before.

2. Compose brilliantly for a maximum of five (5) pages in standard manuscript format
For both parts of the contest, you may choose how to make your case. A standard essay is fine; so is a short story, fully-realized scene excerpted from a novel, a play, or a poem. Heck, I’d love to see some graphic novel entries, but please, no photo essays. This is a prize for writing.

I’m quite serious about the 5-page maximum; feel free to make it shorter. If it is longer, the judges will stop reading at the bottom of page 5. Since I have been both a contest judge and editor for many years, trust me: I will notice and disqualify an entry that’s been shrunk to fit within the page limit.

Please submit only writing that has not been published elsewhere by the contest deadline (May 18, 2009 June 1, 2009; see below for further details). You may, however, submit work that is currently entered in another contest.

3. Make sure your submission is in standard format
In order to render this competition as much about the writing as possible, only entries in standard book manuscript format will be eligible to win. To make this restriction fair to those of you new to the concept, I shall be spending the next few weeks going over precisely what that means.

Why am I being so draconian on this point, you gasp? Because I want to try to get a sense of how closely my readers are adhering to the strictures of standard format in their submissions; call it a sociological experiment.

Here’s a really, really good reason to enter the contest: if your entry is knocked out of the running for formatting reasons, I will tell you so. I’ll even tell you what rules your entry violated. (And yes, I am rather hoping that enough of you will enter that I will rue the day I said this.) So if you’re not absolutely positive that you’ve been submitting your work in standard format, this is a dandy way to find out.

For the purposes of this competition, standard format consists of the rules listed under the series following this post. (If you want to consult them sooner and in a less episodic manner, please see the posts under the MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING 101 category at right.) Graphic novels, plays, and poetry may be submitted in the standard formats for those types of writing.

Do not even try to make the argument that contradictory rules you may have heard elsewhere should be used here. Quibblers on the subject will be disqualified automatically.

4. Include a title page
This is actually redundant with the rules of standard format, but since I see so many incorrectly-formatted title pages every year, I want to reward those of you who have done your homework sufficiently to do it right. A great place to begin that homework: in the standard formatting series I shall be running over the next three weeks — or, if you’re in a greater hurry than that to enter, consult the TITLE PAGES category on the archive list at right.

Your title page (which will not count toward the 5-page entry limit) must include the following information:

Your real name

Your pseudonym, if you would prefer that your entry be published under that moniker

Your entry’s title

What book category might be applicable to it (Essay, Fiction, Poetry, Action/Adventure…)

Word count (real or estimated; if you don’t know how to figure this, please see the WORD COUNT category at right)

Your contact information, including e-mail and mailing address (so HarperStudio may ship the books, if you win one)

If you are entering in the Junior category, please include your age at the end of your contact information.

5. Before you submit, double-check to make sure the language in your entry is G-rated
Since the winning entries will be posted on this site and I have it on good authority that some of my readers regularly visit Author! Author! via school and public library computers that have content-blocking programs installed, I must insist that entries be devoid of profanity. The content is up to the entrant, but if the words would not be appropriate for the family hour, it will be disqualified.

Yes, this is its own form of censorship (feel free to write about that, if you like), but as this is a restriction I place upon all of my guest bloggers, I feel quite comfortable extending it to entries in this contest. Shock the judges with your ideas, not individual words.

6. Send your entry as a Word attachment to by midnight on May 18, 2009 June 1, 2009
Please include the word ENTRY in the subject line of your e-mail. Since my readers are spread across many time zones, midnight in this context will be where you are, as shown on your e-mail’s date stamp.

And yes, those of you who are looking at these rules for the second time, having perused them before mid-May: the entry deadline did in fact change.

7. Please enter only once.
That’s fairer to everyone, don’t you think?

8. Wait breathlessly for the judges to make their decisions.

Something to ponder while you wait: if your entry is a winner, I shall contact you (thus the request for contact information) to ask you to provide Author! Author! with an author bio and photo to run with the award-winning entry. Since it takes most of us a while to find a snapshot of ourselves we like, I’m warning you in advance. If you want to get a head start on that author bio, please see the AUTHOR BIO category on the list at right.

And that’s it!
I’m genuinely curious to see what you have to say about subtle censorship, so I hope to hear from many of you. Best of luck, everybody — and as always, keep up the good work!

Ducking Responsibility: Details to Include in your Pet Memoir and a Topic You Might Want to Leave Out by guest blogger Bob Tarte


Welcome to the second installment of my periodic series on censorship issues large and small, concentrating especially on ways writers are discouraged from writing on or what they want. As you may recall from last week, I’ve asked a number of interesting authors to share their thoughts about subtle censorship — and I’ve been blown away by their enthusiastic and generous response.

I’m especially delighted to bring you today’s guest blogger, the inimitable and hilarious Bob Tarte, author of the brilliant pet memoirs ENSLAVED BY DUCKS and FOWL WEATHER. Bob’s got a great voice, highly personalized, an essential for effective memoir — anyone seriously interested in writing humorous memoir should take a gander (so to speak) at his seemingly effortless wit.

In case those of you who are not comedy writers are wondering why: there’s nothing more difficult than appearing to be spontaneously funny; it takes great art.

Those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while may recall Bob’s name: his is one of my standard examples of a fabulous author bio. If you haven’t yet written your bio (and you should be thinking about it, if you are querying or submitting; it’s not the kind of project that benefits from being tossed together at the last minute), you might want to check his out: in a scant few paragraphs, he manages not only to showcase his writing credentials beautifully, but also create an indelible impression of a fascinatingly quirky personality.

But let’s get to the question doubtless on everyone’s mind: what’s a pet memoir, you ask?

I’ll let Bob’s books speak for themselves — or at least the publisher’s blurbs do it for them. Let’s start with his first book, ENSLAVED BY DUCKS, to which I’m told Patricia Heaton from “Everybody Loves Raymond” has already bought the film rights:

enslavedbyducksjacketEnslaved By Ducks
How One Man Went from Head of the Household to Bottom of the Pecking Order

When Bob Tarte left the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan for the country, he was thinking peace and quiet. He’d write his music reviews in the solitude of his rural home on the outskirts of everything.

Then he married Linda. She wanted a rabbit. How much trouble, he thought, could a bunny be?

Well, after the bunny chewed his way through the electrical wires and then hid inside the wall, Bob realized that he had been outwitted. But that was just the beginning. There were parrots, more rabbits, then ducks and African geese. The orphaned turkeys stranded on a nearby road. The abandoned starlings. The sad duck for sale for 25 cents.

Bob suddenly found himself constructing pens, cages, barriers, buying feed, clearing duck waste, spoonfeeding at mealtime. One day he realized that he no longer had a life of quiet serenity, but that he’d become a servant to a relentlessly demanding family: Stanley Sue, a gender-switching African grey parrot; Hector, a cantankerous shoulder-sitting Muscovy duck; Howard, an amorous ring-neck dove; and a motley crew of others. Somehow, against every instinct in him, Bob had unwittingly become their slave.

He read all the classic animal books — The Parrot Who Owns Me, The Dog who Rescues Cats, Arnie the Darling Starling, That Quail Robert, The Cat Who Came for Christmas — about the joys of animals, the touching moments. But none revealed what it was really like to live with an unruly menagerie.

Bob Tarte’s witty account reveals the truth of animal ownership: who really owns who, the complicated logistics of accommodating many species under one roof, the intricate routines that evolve, and ultimately, the distinct and insistent personalities of every animal in the house – and on its perimeter. Writing as someone who’s been ambushed by the way in which animals — even cranky ones — can wend their way into one’s heart, Bob Tarte is James Herriott by way of Bill Bryson.

Then there’s FOWL WEATHER, one of NPR’s Nancy Pearl’s Under-the-Radar Books for January 2008. Quoth Madame Nancy: “If you’re longing for a book that will make you laugh out loud, then run, don’t walk, to the nearest library or bookstore and pick up a copy of Bob Tarte’s Fowl Weather.”

Before you lose yourself in daydreaming about receiving a review like that, cast your eyes over the official blurb:

fowlweatherjacketFowl Weather
How Thirty-Nine Animals and a Sock Monkey Took Over My Life

Bob Tarte’s second book, Fowl Weather, returns us to the Michigan house where pandemonium is the governing principle, and where 39 animals rule the roost. But as things seem to spiral out of control, as his parents age and his mother’s grasp on reality loosens as she battles Alzheimer’s disease, Bob unexpectedly finds support from the gaggle of animals around him. They provide, in their irrational fashion, models for how to live.

It is their alien presences, their sense of humor, and their unpredictable behaviors that both drive Bob crazy and paradoxically return him to sanity. Whether it’s the knot-tying African grey parrot, the overweight cat who’s trained Bob to hold her water bowl just above the floor, or the duck who bests Bob in a shoving match, this is the menagerie, along with his endlessly optimistic wife Linda, that teaches him about the chaos that’s a necessary part of life.

No less demanding than the animals are the people who torment Bob and Linda. There’s the master gardener who steps on plants, the pet sitter applicant who never met an animal he didn’t want to butcher, and a woman Bob hasn’t seen since elementary school who suddenly butts into his life.

With the same biting humor and ability to capture the soul of the animal world that made Enslaved by Ducks such a rousing success, Bob Tarte shows us that life with animals gives us a way out of our small human perspectives to glimpse something larger, more enduring, and more wholly grounded in the simplicities of love — even across species lines.

Speaking of radio, Bob also hosts a podcast for called What Were You Thinking? that is, he says, ostensibly about exotic pets, but as frequently lapses into “a chronicle of life with his own troublesome critters.” It’s well worth a listen, whether you own pets or not.

As clever souls among you may well have gathered by now, I’m a great admirer of Bob’s work — which is currently available both on Amazon US, with a different cover on Amazon Canada and Amazon UK, and, for the indie bookstore-minded, Powell’s, should you be interested. However, that’s not the only reason that I’m genuinely tickled to present his guest post today as a combination Orthodox Easter treat (it’s Sunday, in case you were wondering; like many another nice Greek-American girl, I’m cooking up a storm even as you read this) and reward to all of you for having made it successfully through my recent very dense HOW DO MANUSCRIPTS GET PUBLISHED, ANYWAY? series.

When Bob and I were discussing his guest post, I realized something startling: I have literally never run a post about how an author might handle readers’ responses to his work. How on earth had I missed the topic of the fan letter — and the anti-fan letter? Bob has been kind enough to remedy this oversight — and to give us his insight on how seemingly uncontroversial topics can abruptly bloom into a forest of unexpected feedback.

So join me, please, in a big round of applause for today’s guest blogger, Bob Tarte. Take it away, Bob!


I write humorous books about pet ducks and bunnies. And I get hate mail.

Most of the comments from readers of Enslaved By Ducks and Fowl Weather josh me about spoiling our animals, and deservedly so. My wife Linda used to sing a lullaby to our grumpy rabbit Binky. And we once kept a goose named Liza on our front porch for an entire summer while nursing her through a lung infection — plying her with bowls of duck pellets, dandelion greens, water, and gourmet-quality mud.

So I’m surprised when I’m occasionally scolded for not lavishing enough care upon our pampered critters. And a few times, I’ve been accused of outright animal abuse.

“You People Make Me Sick”
Binky died from an unknown malady after acting listless for a few days. Linda rushed him to the vet when he suddenly grew worse. After we had buried him, I was so distraught that I constructed a neurotic backyard monument to him complete with winding walking paths.

We hadn’t realized that once a bunny shows signs of illness, it is often too late to help. We had read books on keeping rabbits, phoned the breeder frequently for help, and did our best for him. But this was in the pre-Internet era when life’s mysteries were further than a Google search away. We know much more about our critters now, though this doesn’t make us feel any better about past mistakes.

Maybe I should have included a disclaimer to this effect. A reader responded to Binky’s story in Enslaved By Ducks by sending me a sheet on basic rabbit care adorned with a sticky-note that said, “You people make me sick.”

The same book contains the story of Weaver, a starling we rescued who was unable to fly. We had just started raising and releasing orphaned songbirds for Wildlife Rehab Center in Grand Rapids, and Linda successfully brought Weaver and his siblings to a state of ear-splitting good health.

She fed them the standard-recipe formula that rehabbers use with insectivorous birds: kitten kibbles, pureed chicken baby food, a squirt of liquid vitamins, and water, all slushed together in a blender. Weaver eventually took wing and left us. But a reader emailed me, outraged and frothing at the keyboard that we had fed him such a concoction. “I would bring charges against you if I could,” she wrote.

Because of comments like these — as well as an online review criticizing Enslaved By Ducks as a lousy ‘how-to’ book, though I had written it as a ‘how-not-to’ book — I find myself over-explaining things these days rather than assuming that readers will realize we’re not secretly running a taxidermy service here. But there’s a stronger reason for over-explaining than staving off criticism from the occasional malcontent. I want to decrease the odds of my contributing to anyone’s animal mishap.



Inoculate Yourself
Here’s an example of what I’m blathering on about. I’m writing a book about our six cats called The Funnel of Happiness. My sister Joan and her husband Jack with their 12 cats make several appearances, beginning with Jack live-trapping three feral cats with the help of a wireless video camera and the hindrance of many sleepless nights.

Once the cats are settled on the front porch, and after one of the females unexpectedly has kittens, Joan and Jack take them successively to the vet to get them spayed or neutered. Before releasing them into the house to mingle with Winston, Gizmo, Mimi, Linus, Libby Lou, and Max, they also have them tested for feline leukemia.

I mention this fact more than once in The Funnel of Happiness, but not because it contributes to my madcap narrative. I include it because I don’t want a single reader to introduce a feline leukemia-positive kitty into their home and endanger their other cats due to information that I failed to include.

Some details, however, are probably best excluded from a pet book.

In Fowl Weather I chronicled a horrendous July in which five of our animals died, including a Muscovy duck who managed to hang himself in the fencing while trying to get at a rival in an adjacent pen, and two khaki Campbell ducks that fell victim to a burrowing raccoon.

A reader chided me for being reckless about housing our animals, and he was right at least in the case of the industrious raccoon, but was fetching from afar when it came to the suicidal duck. We’ve taken steps to make the recurrence of these occurrences improbable, but it’s impossible to plan for everything.

This past March we lost more birds to a predator. I opened the barn one Saturday morning and was shocked to discover a dead and partially eaten hen on the floor. I didn’t see how any animal could have gotten inside, so I decided that the elderly chicken had succumbed to natural causes, and a rat, perhaps, had taken advantage of the situation. When closing the barn that evening, I checked the shadows for a lurking raccoon, then took care to batten down all hatches. The next morning two more hens had been killed.

Mink Attack
The banks of the Grand River are usually 500 feet from us. But they raised their skirts and scuttled to within 100 feet of our barn, thanks to an early March snowmelt and lots of rain. A mink apparently moved forward with the flowing water. We deduced this after our handyman Gary looked over the dead hens and concluded that an animal with a small mouth had killed them — and after a buddy of our neighbor’s reported seeing a mink cross his driveway after dark.

With Gary’s help, I fortified an old, unused chicken coop that occupies a corner inside the barn, covering the open side with chicken wire and plugging up any cracks and holes large enough to wiggle a couple of fingers through — because minks can weasel in almost anywhere. Linda examined the outside of the barn, identifying a slit in a window frame here, a knocked out knothole there, which I sealed as I best as I could.

Our rehabber friends weren’t encouraging, though. If a mink or weasel really wants to get inside, there’s little you can do to keep it out — especially if you house your ducks and chickens in a 100-year-old barn that’s not exactly airtight. Herding our birds into the coop, keeping the lights on, and playing a talk radio station for a few nights paid off, because we didn’t lose another bird.

In addition to shoring up structural security and setting live traps for the mink, we took a more direct and drastic step. We hired our friend Charlie to stand guard with his .22 rifle for a couple of hours after sunset the first two nights with our blessing to blast the mink into fur hat-dom if it reappeared.

I mention Charlie’s sentry duty in the “Mink Attack” episode of my podcast What Were You Thinking? for And I’m planning on working the mink story into my cat book, which funnels in tales of our other animals. But I haven’t made up my mind whether or not to include Charlie’s contribution. It’s probably best to leave it out. Many people who read pet memoirs are opposed to killing animals under any circumstances.

I’m with these folks in spirit. But I loved the hens that died. They were delightful creatures who greeted me at the barn door for treats each evening, pressing so close that I had to carefully wade through the flock. So, in a choice between losing more chickens or forfeiting a mink, I picked the hens, or would have, had it come down to that choice. Charlie never caught a glimpse of the nocturnal marauder. The river receded, and our birds once again have the full run (and flight) of the barn each night.

Victor, Juanita, and Two Tone

Victor, Juanita, and Two Tone

It’s Hopeless, So Just Give Up
In the end, you can write and write and write, but people will still read into your book whatever they want to.

At the beginning of Fowl Weather I include a cast of characters, because our many animals (36 at the time) are hard for readers to keep track of. I grouped the cast under three headings: ‘Nonhuman’ for animals, ‘Humans’ for us lesser beings, and ‘Inhumans’ for entities like the telephone that have power over our lives. Just for a gag, I put my friend Bill Holm in the ‘Nonhuman’ category to emphasize his standing as an annoyance.

A book reviewer for a North Carolina newspaper was generous in her positive comments about Fowl Weather. And she chuckled about the scenes that featured my “imaginary friend Bill Holm.”

Being imaginary came as quite a bombshell to the real-life Bill Holm, who insists that he exists, and if he doesn’t, people who have heard him speak when he accompanies me on book signings are due for intensive therapy. Apart from the joke in the cast of characters, nothing in the book suggests that Bill is merely a product of my imagination, even though from time to time I find myself wishing that he were.

That critic accurately recounted all other facts about Fowl Weather in her review, unlike another who groused that she found it impossible to finish the book because of its supposed prejudice against the elderly. Ignoring the fact that I’m hardly in the bloom of youth myself, the comment is breathtaking considering that a major thread of the memoir is my mom’s fight with Alzheimer’s disease and my family’s efforts to help her. I’ve received countless emails from readers who are going through a similar situation with a family member, and to a person they have appreciated how I treat the subject.

A few years ago, Linda ran an ad in our local paper seeking help with a strenuous landscaping job. One man who applied had an obvious physical impairment that made it difficult for us to imagine how he could perform the work. When I wrote about the incident in Fowl Weather, I didn’t want readers in our community to say, “Oh my, gosh, that’s so-and-so,” so I disguised the man by making him asthmatic.

I also often play fast and loose with the gender and location of our vets, since there are so few avian veterinarians in our county and they could be readily identified. Nevertheless, I get emails that say, “Hey, we go to the same guy.”

Anyway, that critic who accused me of age discrimination decided that my passage about the asthmatic was more evidence of my grudge against the elderly, even though the age of the fellow was never alluded to in any way.

I should have noted in Fowl Weather that he was in his forties, and I should have taken pains to emphasize Bill Holm’s corporeality, too.



Unbearable Recklessness
This brings me back to the reader who posted the online comment that we lost some of our animals due to substandard housing. The afternoon of the second mink attack, Linda took a walk through the woods behind our house by sticking to the high ground (which I need to learn to do in my books). Spotting what she thought was a crow’s nest in a tree, she focused her binoculars and backed slowly away after realizing that the big brown heap was, in fact, a bear.

I didn’t believe her at first. We’re way too far south in Michigan for bears, but I saw the sleeping animal myself and backed away at a speedier clip than she had.

In the fifteen years that we’ve been keeping ducks and hens in our barn, we’ve never had problems with a mink until this spring. I’ll explain this in The Funnel of Happiness, of course, partly to alert other poultry keepers of a potential problem if they live near a river, and also to ward off criticism that we were reckless enough not to have identified every possible element that might go wrong in our lives.

But what if the bear had come crashing through the woods to tear our backyard goose pen apart as if it had been made of matchsticks? What potential havoc might Michigan’s version of Bigfoot wreak on the outdoor pets? Shouldn’t we anticipate these potential threats and act accordingly?

I’m afraid I can’t answer these questions. I’m too busy at the moment. I’ve started work on a meteor deflection screen for the top floor of the house to protect our parrots on the first floor, and I’ll definitely include the plans in the appendix of my next book.

I just hope I’m not overdoing the over-explaining. It’s humorous pet book I’m writing, after all.

bobtarteBob Tarte and his wife Linda live on the edge of a shoe-sucking swamp near the West Michigan village of Lowell. When not fending off mosquitoes during temperate months and chipping ice out of plastic wading pools in the depths of winter, Bob writes books about his pets, namely Enslaved by Ducks and Fowl Weather. He’s currently working on a book about his six cats called The Funnel of Happiness.

Bob has written the Technobeat world music review column for The Beat magazine since 1989 and posts his columns at . He has also written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Miami New Times newspapers.

He hosts a podcast for called What Were You Thinking? that’s supposedly about ‘exotic pets’ as a general topic, but just as often turns into a chronicle of life with his own troublesome critters. For a direct link to Bob’s show, click here.)

Bob and Linda currently serve the whims of over 50 animals, including parrots, ducks, geese, parakeets, a rabbit, doves, cats, and hens. They also raise and release orphan songbirds (including woodpeckers) for the Wildlife Rehab Center, Ltd. in Grand Rapids and have the scars to prove it.

Visit Bob Tarte’s website for photos of Bob, Linda, and the animals, information about Bob’s books, links to Bob’s music review website and pet podcast, Bob’s email address, and several totally useless videos.


I Need a Hero! by guest blogger Eileen Cronin


Hello, everyone –
I have always been very interested in every aspect of censorship, from the official variety where a government chooses to jail authors it considers seditious to groups yanking a book from the shelves to destroy all available copies of it to aspiring writers being discouraged from writing about certain topics — or even about mainstream topics in non-mainstream ways — to the self-censorship that leads writers to avoid saying certain things in print. I could go on about it all day; it fascinates me.

However, since a blog is, by definition, one writer yammering at great length on her chosen topics, I thought I would open up the conversation for the next couple of months, at least from time to time, to hear what some other writers have to say on the subject. To this end, I have been busily soliciting many interesting authors to contribute guest blogs on how various aspects of censorship affect the writing life.

You’re going to be hearing from them periodically in the weeks to come, I’m delighted to report. There’s also going to be a contest, some door prizes, a book review, and what I hope will be a genuinely illuminating interview, but you’ll hear about all that when the time is ripe. For now, let me introduce the first guest blogger in my subtle censorship series, Eileen Cronin.

Eileen has the kind of writing credentials that make query letter-writers drool. An assistant editor for Narrative Magazine, she’s currently in the running for the coveted Pushcart Prize. Last year, she won the Washington Writing Prize; she has thrice been a finalist in the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner-Wisdom competition.

Currently, her novel, Orphan Sanctuary, is a quarter-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards. If you want to help out with the judging, download her entry (as well as any others that might interest you, of course) and write a review before April 15.

I asked Eileen to write the first guest post in this series for a couple of reasons. First, I knew that I would not agree with everything she would say, something that strikes me as quite appropriate for this series. I want guest bloggers who will disagree with me. (And it turned out that I was right that we would not see eye-to-eye on the post: I wouldn’t characterize Amy Tan as infamous, for instance; my understanding of the 1970s film term blaxpoitation is quite different from hers, and as a long-time fan of actor Peter Dinklage, I’m quite surprised to hear that anyone would have had a problem with his role in Elf. But apparently we both rolled our eyes and cried, “Oh, come on!” at precisely the same point in The Poisonwood Bible.)

Another reason has to do with why I, at least, rolled my eyes at The Poisonwood Bible: I’ve noticed that there are not all that many complex disabled characters turning up in novels these days. One of the two protagonists in Eileen’s novel — yes, the one that’s up for the Amazon award, so you may read an excerpt for free here — is an amputee, a complex character who sidesteps the vast array of stereotypes surrounding disability.

Who better to ask, then, to talk to us about how and why fiction readers aren’t seeing many well-rounded disabled characters of late? Take it away, Eileen!


If you were pressed to come up with the names of five contemporary writers with physical disabilities, could you do it? Now, how about writers of fiction with physical disabilities?

Are you scratching your head? I am, and I have a physical disability.

Memoir is what most often comes to mind with respect to writers with physical disabilities, and there are some lovely examples. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, written by the former editor-in chief of Elle Magazine Jean-Dominique Bauby, is one such book.
5cd0228348a033301b1f3110lAfter his massive stroke caused a type of paralysis known as locked-in syndrome, Bauby dictated his book to a transcriber using the blink of an eye. His prose is incisive and ethereal as he guides us on his journey inward with the curiosity of a New World explorer.

But physical disabilities should not be limited to memoir nor should writers with physical disabilities. I’ve heard it said in writers’ workshops that disability is a “subject” best handled in memoir, as if disability had no place in fiction. I’ve also heard workshop leaders advise that characters with disabilities should remain secondary or tertiary characters so as not to bog the story down. But writers of fiction tend to write about what they know, so where does that leave the fiction writer with a physical disability?

In my case, I have written a novel with an amputee as the protagonist, Orphan Sanctuary. An excerpt is now online as one of the quarter-finalists in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards — reviews are welcome! — and it was a finalist in the Novels-in-Progress category of the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner-Wisdom competition.

It was difficult to write this story, as the choice of protagonists spawned from my own experience as an amputee. I know that students of writing are encouraged to write the “universal” story and in the past that has been interpreted as: Caucasian, college-educated, able-bodied heterosexuals. Those attitudes are shifting as we see more stories published by writers from different cultures.

Every year at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, a summer workshop, Amy Tan, an infamous Chinese-American writer, generously allows the administrators to post a selection of her own rejection letters for all new writers to witness. My personal favorite is one from a publisher who questioned why Tan would rely so heavily on the “Chinese idiom.” Tan’s success proves the point that in the past stories about characters from cultures outside of Caucasian were called “ethnic stories,” today they are called “bestsellers.”

But writers with physical disabilities, even characters with physical disabilities are not nearly as visible.

And disability, by the way, is not as “marginal” as it has been characterized in the publishing industry. Given that estimates of persons with a disability (of any kind) could amount to up to twenty percent of the U.S. population, with numbers as high as fifty million, it’s likely then that disability affects most Americans, if not directly, then at least through a familial or personal connection. Disability is in fact “universal.”

And as persons with physical disability are more likely to be restricted to more sedentary activities, reading and/or writing perhaps occur more commonly in this population. I have only logic to rely on in this case—logic and Laura Hillenbrand.
Hillenbrand, the author of Seabiscuit, was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr, also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a disease which often limits a person’s physical activity substantially. She has said in interviews that in becoming disabled she was forced to be more introspective; she had more time to read and write.

Other than Hillenbrand, where are all the writers of fiction with physical disabilities?

To find a few, I Googled “physically disabled writers” and the only contemporary writer I found was a woman named Noria Jablonski.
534100367_mJablonski’s collection of short stories, Human Oddities, has been compared to the photography of Diane Arbus, although in my estimation Jablonski’s strong suit is more her ear than her eye. Ironic when you consider that her disability is a partial hearing loss.

Jablonski is most often cited for her story, “Pam calls her mother on five-cent Sundays,” which is about Siamese twins, Fern and Rose, and this is an excerpt from a scene in a beauty salon where Fern and Rose are having their hair done:

“If we could,” said Fern, “we’d go back to being show folks. But live shows are kaput. People look down on them. Also, they’re so expensive to run. Now, if you’re lucky, maybe you could get a two-headed baby in a pickle jar—”
“Or a five-legged cow,” said Rose.
“Or one of those kids with a unicorn horn,” said Fern…

This dialogue works beautifully because the characters lack the self-consciousness that most would assume as part and parcel of being a Siamese twin. The characters are fresh, and while provocative, they are humorous and enchanting. The dialogue is musical.

It might even be that the driving force behind that marvelous ear is Jablonski’s hearing loss. Perhaps she hears things differently than most of us?

Jablonski’s work is noteworthy for bringing the physically disabled from the unmentionable and invisible into the spotlight. Still, her writing might also be criticized as another form of sensationalism; and many with physical disabilities could justifiably argue that there is a demand for characters whose physical disability is only one of many traits instead of the defining feature.

For me, the challenge in the invention of a hero is in developing a psyche, a cohesive blend of unique traits mixed with irony. Even more difficult is the task of unveiling humanity in its most compassionate light.

There have been recent portrayals of characters with physical disabilities by more famous contemporary writers who have no known physical disability.
2534-1In The Plot Against America, Philip Roth includes Alvin, a World War II veteran with an amputation and the all too familiar “chip on his shoulder,” the plague of so many amputees in novels. Heaped onto this chip is Roth’s fascination with the festering wounds on the amputation: a metaphor no more evolved than the concept of Heggedy Peg. In the end, the rotting limb becomes symbolic of a rotting soul.

What’s new in that? And what a shame. There were so many fascinating aspects of Alvin left undeveloped.

imgthe-poisonwood-bible-a-novel3In The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver includes one twin, Adah Price, with hemiplegia (a paralysis on one side of the body). In doing so Kingsolver brings out a complex family dynamic: When disaster strikes, the twins’ mother grabs the able-bodied twin in the rush to evacuate, while the neurologically impaired twin has to survive on her own strength.

The scenario is beautifully rendered until the end of the book when the impaired twin grows up to become a neurologist and cures herself, which seems unlikely. Besides, it begs this question: Must a heroine be physically cured in order to make a viable heroine?”

For my money, the film industry has made more evolved choices than the publishing industry with regard to physically different characters in recent years. I doubt that this is due to an influx of screenwriters with physical disabilities, but somehow, disabled characters are sneaking in under the wire. My two favorite examples being: 3:10 to Yuma and The Station Agent.

3-10-to-yumaIn 3:10 to Yuma, the hero is an amputee (so of course I love it). The concept is realistic enough without being weighty and yet it’s dynamic. Christian Bale as the one-legged-rancher-turned-bounty-hunter is soulful. His character (seen in the photo as crouching on what must be his “good leg”) exudes both heteroerotic as well as homoerotic sensuality. The dialogue is classic Western with a down-on-luck spin that takes an unexpected twist when the hero turns out to be an amputee.

My favorite line from the movie is when Bale’s character speaks as a man who has been kicked around one too many times. He’s arguing to his wife that he’s going to become a bounty hunter because he’s tired of watching his boys go hungry, his wife go without, and his ranch fall apart; he says: “I been standin’ on one leg for three long years waitin’ for God to do me a favor…and he ain’t listenin.’”

He got me at “standin’ on one leg.”

stationagent_1And then there’s The Station Agent, a film about a very short man with a larger than life persona. This film made it clear to me that an enduring sense of integrity could be sexier to some than six-pack abs. Peter Dinklage’s wry, terse style is disarming. Even in films where he plays a self-effacing caricature of a “dwarf,” he dominates the screen and comes out with his dignity intact. Some would argue that he loses points for roles such as the “angry dwarf” in Elf but I would argue that once established as a noteworthy ensemble actor, Dinklage has created the freedom to laugh at himself.

And that really is what’s at stake for writers and even characters with disabilities. In fact, that is what’s at stake for any group that is marginalized by the “taboo” label.

For those of us in the physical disability taboo box, it’s cumbersome to argue after every stereotypical portrayal. If physical disability were treated as multifaceted in literature, then perhaps the disabled would feel less of an affront each time a stereotype creeps in. Physical disability would move (as race has) closer to the mainstream.

shaftConsider the movie Shaft, for example. The same film concept with a slightly different spin over three decades yielded a vastly different result. In 1971, Shaft was considered “Blaxploitation,” (a term coined in the seventies to describe films that exploited black actors). But the 2000 remake was a success. Why is that? It’s because in the period between those movies an increasing number of films featured African-Americans in multifaceted roles. By the year 2000, the stereotype had lost much of its power.

In advancing the storyline, the freedom of expression expands and we all feel a bit less constrained.

So maybe the publishing industry should give a closer look at physical disability. Take it seriously. Take it out of the closet. In doing so, we can all lighten up because we will have one less cultural taboo bogging us down.

And for those interested in accessing my novel, Orphan Sanctuary, please feel free to download it on Amazon!