Tag Archives: David Sedaris

Advice for Writers Struggling with Genre: Ask This Question

bookshelf

bookshelfIf you’ve ever thought about writing a book, the very first thing anyone will tell you is to figure out which “shelf” it will sit on in a bookstore. It’s not enough to simply have a topic, or even an angle into a topic. You need to know who’s going to buy this book. Because book publishing, like anything else, is a business and the key to a successful business is knowing your market.

I knew all of this, of course. Over the years, I’ve been in enough writing groups and consumed enough resources devoted to the art and science of getting published that I knew that were I someday to approach an agent with an idea for a book, I’d need to be able to provide a cogent answer to this question.

And then someday arrived and I wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to answer it.

Let me back up. I’ve been working for several months on a book about…drumroll please…swimming and adulthood. After more than 25 years as a “casual runner” – someone who ran three times a week to stay fit – my body was telling me that that I could no longer run. The reasons why I needed to stop running aren’t all that interesting. (Well, OK, something called Piriformis Syndrome, if you must know…) But the upshot was that, on the advice of my doctor, I began – somewhat reluctantly – to swim.

This obviously not an entirely new topic for me. This blog’s strapline – “Finding Yourself In Adulthood” – is all about conceptualizing adulthood as a journey, not a destination. But whereas the blog tackles topics ranging from work and parenting to therapy and the arts in a much more general way, the daily act of swimming enabled me to analyse these subjects through a single prism. In essence, swimming serves as a metaphor through which to explore what it means to be a grown up in the contemporary age.

But even after I started writing this book, I still struggled with where it fit on the proverbial bookshelf. Was it an extended meditation on swimming itself, Like Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies?  Was it a sports memoir a la Gerald Marzaroti’s Late to the Ball about picking up a new skill (tennis) in midlife? Was it a humorous, loosely themed take on daily life, modelled on David Sedaris or Sandra Tsing Loh?  Or a was it a collection of more serious essays like Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable?

On alternate days it felt a bit like all of these.

It didn’t help that when I showed my précis (2 page overview) of the book to a few friends I got very different advice. One friend thought that it needed to be funnier, more like my daily status updates which I post on Facebook recounting the cast of characters I run into at my local swimming pool. Another friend thought that it should be a novel. Someone else advised me to convert it into an inspirational journey, the sort of Eat, Pray, Love of swimming.

Instead of writing the book, I began to obsess about genre.

And then, one day, at the tail end of a dinner party while chatting about this problem with a friend, I had my Eureka moment. My friend is a novelist who has written several novels in the Lad Lit genre and is on the cusp of becoming a sensation with his latest work-in-progress, which has already been snatched up by a major New York imprint. (He’s also sold the film rights. As he put it so beautifully, “Who knew that becoming an overnight success took so long?”)

After I regaled him with all of my anxieties about what the book could and should be, he looked at me and simply said: “Write the book that only you could write.”

It wasn’t rocket science. Nor was some dark, heretofore unknown secret of the publishing world. But for me, it was sort of like that age-old adage: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” And just like that, I immediately felt better.

Because I realised in that moment that I actually *had* been writing the book that only I could write all along. While it had elements of several different styles, at the end of the day the book I was writing was essentially a self-help book, albeit one very much rooted in my own experience. (I’ve since learned that there is a name for this sub-genre – self-help memoir or prescriptive memoir. Thank you, Jane Friedman.)

For me, my friend’s throwaway line (heartfelt, to be sure, even if infused with a few glasses of red wine), was clarifying: I need to stop obsessing over what other people think my book is meant to be. That comes later. For now, the book is already what I need it to be: a place to bring my voice and my insights to a topic I’ve long been passionate about with a fresh angle.

In a year where my new year’s resolution was to embrace authenticity, that feels pretty good.

Image: Bookshelves by Hernán Poo-Camaño via Flickr

Top Ten Signs You’re Turning 50

vitaminsI had a birthday recently. It wasn’t *that* birthday. But that one’s coming soon enough.

My 11-year-old daughter often asks me if I “feel old.” Hell no, I tell her. I feel young. And I do. (It helps that I still eat pop tarts and, worse, enjoy them…but I digress.)

So while I’m fully on board with  Joanne Bamberger’s recent post about how it’s really OK to look 50, there’s no denying that as we age, things start to change. Once, several years ago I wrote a blog post entitled “Five Tangible Signs You’re Middle Aged.” I looked at it again recently and decided that while it was (still) remarkably relevant, it was time to expand on it and bring it up to date.

Herewith, my top ten signs you’re turning 50:

Read the rest of this post over at The Broad Side

Image: Vitamin packaging via www.colindunn.com

Friday Pix: Recommended Reading For The Weekend

On occasional Fridays, I point you towards some recommended reading around the blogsphere:

1. I  begin this week with two moving tributes  in the aftermath of this week’s tragedy at the Boston Marathon. Here is Lisa Belkin of The Huffington Post talking about how we collectively deal with these sorts of terrorist attacks.

2. And here is Cecilia of the Only You blog talking about what the city of Boston means to her.

3. If, like me, you loved Roger Ebert, then you’ll love this obituary by Gene Weingarten in The Washington Post.

4. The fantabulous David Sedaris weighs in on what it’s like to buy a stuffed owl in London.

5. If you need a laugh this week – and honestly, who doesn’t? – kindly check out this hilarious set of responses to “Can someone photoshop the sun between my fingers?”

6. Finally, for those who crave that “coffee house” atmosphere when we work, check out Coffitivity.

 

Have a great weekend!

 

What David Sedaris Teaches Us About Middle Age

My husband and I went to see David Sedaris on Friday night.

He was doing a reading of his work at Cadogan Hall here in London. (The last time we went to Cadogan Hall it was to see Garrison Keillor. I think you know you’re middle-aged when you start spending your weekends attending events headlining NPR personalities. Must add it to my list…)

If you aren’t familiar with Sedaris, have a listen to Santaland Diaries – a diary of his Christmas spent working as an elf at Macy’s – which catapulted him to overnight fame. When it was first broadcast, this essay generated more requests for tapes than any story in Morning Edition’s history except the death of veteran sports caster Red Barber.

If you are familiar with Sedaris, then you’ll know why we jumped at the chance to hear him perform live.

He didn’t disappoint.

He was funny, engaging, self-effacing and gracious.

He also told a bunch of off-color jokes. Apparently, during his recent book tour in the U.S., he started asking people who came up to have their books signed to tell him a joke. He has now collected some of the best ones he’s heard and uses them as part of his routine. He even asked our audience to tell him some raunchy gay jokes. (Sedaris is gay.) He feels like people are too abashed to tell him any.

Above all, however, it was really inspiring to watch someone who is clearly having so much fun in his chosen profession. At one point – while reading a new piece he’s written about why traveling to China has made him hate Chinese food – he actually cracked himself up and had to stop for a moment to regain his composure before carrying on with the reading. I loved that.

When author Frank McCourt died, I wrote a post about the joys of old age and how McCourt’s life is a great example of how it’s never too late to follow your dreams. Sedaris achieved literary success in his early 30’s, but somehow he’s never quite lost that air of the up-and-coming-guy who’s still shuffling around cleaning other people’s apartments and working as an elf over the Christmas holidays because he needs the extra money.

In short, he acts like someone who’s still waiting to catch his big break. And therein lies his genius and his charm. You get the sense that this is a guy who still doesn’t take anything for granted. Rather, he lives life by being a careful observer of it: by drawing out the humorous and the touching in the million little particles that make up every day, and by and finding never-ending ways to make himself laugh as he does so.

What a treat. We should all be so lucky.

David Sedaris by WBUR via Flickr from a Creative Commons license.

Tips For Adulthood: How To Edit Productively

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I’ve got writing on the brain these days. I’ve recently joined a writing group and I’m about to turn back to my own manuscript in a few days. (Drumroll, please…)

So I’m thinking again, about the craft of writing. Not the initial creative burst that yields a blog post…an article…a novel. But that potentially stomach-churning, roll-up-your-sleeves and stare-the-beast-in-the-face process commonly known as editing. (I think Ernest Hemingway summed up the distinction between these two phases best when he said: “Write drunk. Edit sober.”)

Fortunately for me, many of the blogs and e-zines I regularly peruse are devoted to precisely this topic: the craft of writing. So I’m constantly being bombarded with new ideas about the writing process, which I dutifully file away for when the time comes.

Accordingly, this week’s tips list goes out to all of you fellow travellers who have something you need to edit – it could be a poem…a short story…heck, an office memo…and, like me, you need to find your mojo.

Here are five things to keep in mind when you edit:

1. Take time off after the first draft. This crucial piece of advice comes from Stephen King in his fabulous, incredibly useful, not-to-be-missed book, On Writing. (Did I tell you how much I liked it?) King recommends that novelists take 4-6 weeks off after finishing a manuscript so that they can come back to it fresh. But I’d say that – if you can manage it, subject to deadlines, etc. – take even longer than that. The reason for waiting to begin the re-writing process is that you want to be able to open your ms. up and read it like anyone else would. You don’t want to be able to recite it line by line. And there’s another reason to let your story sit. As a friend of mine who’s a screenwriter once told me, “You’ll surprise yourself. There will be things that will be better than you thought they were and things that will be worse.” And that’s exactly the point:  to be surprised. Because that’s the only way you’ll figure out what works, what needs fixing and what should be tossed in the bin.

2. Find ways to make the material new. If you’re like me, you find writing the first draft of anything far more fun than slogging your way through the edit. That’s natural. The first draft is all about throwing stuff out there, while the second (and third…and fourth…) drafts are about refinement. (See again, Hemingway.) So when you’re in re-write mode, it’s really important to come up with devices that help you make the old draft feel new. If you’re writing fiction, you might decide to write a biography of all of your characters to make them come alive…again. One of my favorite writer/bloggers, Christina Baker Kline, has a host of suggestions for how to jumpstart a revision. My favorite? Write three new openings. In each opening, start from a different moment in the story – maybe even at the very end. Wow! What a great idea!

3. Trim excess words. One of the best writing assignments I ever got was in a high school English class. We were told to write an essay of 1,000 words on a given topic. The next week, we came in and the teacher told us to write the same essay, this time in 500 words. But while we all *know* that cutting excess verbiage is one of the cardinal tasks of the second draft, how to wield the axe is another story entirely. In a guest post on the amazing Write To Done blog (a must for all you writers out there), Fekket Cantenel offers very specific advice for how to clean up your narration. Under trimming excess words, she offers the following remedy: Start with the first sentence. Take out the first word and read the sentence. Does it still make sense and carry the same idea across? Yes? Then leave it out. Repeat. Skeptical? Try it. I just went up to the intro of this blog and cut out several words.

4. Read your writing out loud. This tip is brought to you by none other than David Sedaris, whose views on the writing process were generously shared by another great writer/blogger, Lisa Romeo Writes. On the topic of reading your work aloud, Sedaris says: “When I hear myself reading out loud, I hear things I don’t hear when I read (silently) to myself. When I read aloud, I always have a pencil in hand. If I feel I’m trying too hard, or I’m being repetitive, I make a mark.” Another reason to read your writing aloud is that it also helps with voice. You not only hear the repetition and the over-writing. You can also hear whether or not you sound too stilted, too casual, too funny or too sharp. I think this is why I like Sandra Tsing Loh so much as a writer. (Not incidentally, both she and Sedaris frequently perform their work on radio.) They are writers who have really honed their voice. And I’m sure that it took a lot of re-writing to get there.

5. Don’t send it off too soon. Stephen King has a great metaphor for the writing process. He talks about writing “with the door open” vs. writing “with the door closed.” I think what he’s getting at is that the first draft is really for you, the writer, to get your thoughts down on the page however they come out. But at a certain point, you need to bring in other people to read what you’ve got and offer feedback. One of the biggest mistakes writers make (Lord knows I’m guilty of this) is to spend endless amounts of time on the “closed door” phase of writing, but fail to spend enough time on the “open door” phase. And this can be catastrophic. Here’s the blogger/writer/editor, Victoria A. Mixon, with a cautionary tale on what happens when you send your draft out too soon, taken from her own life. Read it and weep (I’ve set it apart because it made that much of an impact on me):

You know what my first agent said about the draft I sent her of my first novel?

“I love this paragraph.”

Months later, after the manuscript had cooled off, I re-read the whole thing and was absolutely horrified.

I called her to apologize, and she responded (rather callously, I must say), “See what I had to wade through?”

 

Yikes.

What works for you when you’re editing something?

*****

I’m over on www.PoliticsDaily.com today talking about the British Government’s latest initiative: measuring citizens’ happiness.

 

Image: How well I could write if I were not here! by Madampsychosis via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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The Road Not Taken: What I Learned From Watching Mamma Mia

“Regrets, I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention.”

–Frank Sinatra, My Way.

What a great quote that is.

I’ve been thinking about regret lately. It all began with this touching piece by David Sedaris in The New Yorker a few weeks back. Sedaris writes movingly about a near-hook up he almost had in his early 20’s with a Lebanese guy whom he met on a train in Italy. Although the guy invites Sedaris to get off the train and join him, Sedaris passes on the opportunity. But he still thinks about that guy – and what might have been – all these years later. The essay is a giant homage to that great question of adulthood: What if?

The Road not Taken is also the subject of Mamma Mia, which – for my sins – I watched with my kids last weekend at their behest. (I fully own up to my abiding love of musical theatre, but even I balk at Abba.)

Mamma Mia – and I’m not spoiling anything here – is about a young woman on the brink of getting married who doesn’t know who her father is. So (unbeknown to her mother) she invites the three likely candidates to her wedding. Passion, longing, anger, resentment (and far too many Abba songs) ensue. The movie is all-out camp, but nestled within all the cheese are a few touching moments that actually work (Meryl Streep singing The Winner Takes It All to a love-struck Pierce Brosnan was my own personal favorite).

What Sedaris’ essay and Mamma Mia have in common is wistfulness, which is a huge part of adulthood. In Sedaris’ case, it’s not that he regrets whom he ended up with. (He makes a subtle nod to his long-time partner, Hugh, at the end of the essay.) It’s just that he’s wondering if –  in turning down that handsome Lebanese guy all those many years ago – he missed the boat. Not necessarily the boat, but a boat nonetheless. And in so doing, he articulates that great fear of adulthood:  which is that once we make a choice, everything else becomes path dependent.  Which in turn forces us to come to grips with the fact that we may never go round again.

This can be a fear about your personal life, as it was in these two instances. But it’s also a fear that we bring to career choices and to where we live and to the schools we attend (or don’t). What I find moving about wistfulness is that you can’t really escape it. You need to just live with it and perhaps, even, embrace it by – say – writing a short story in the New Yorker.

On a lighter note, midway through the movie – which is shot on the Greek islands – I commented that I’d like to go to Greece. To which my daughter replied: “OK, but let’s not go to Latin.” No, indeed. Let’s not.

Please tell me that you, too, are now singing “The Winner Takes It All”…

*****

Speaking of musical theatre, is anyone else as excited as I am that they’re making a movie about the making of A Chorus Line? OK, anyone who isn’t my sister?

Image: Two Roads Diverged in a Non-Yellow Wood by Msmail via Flickr under a Creative Commons License

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