Monday, January 26, 2015

How to Start a Writing Group

Aside from the creative writing workshops I took in college, I've generally avoided writing groups. My reasons are varied and complicated, but mostly it's because I don't like to share my work with anyone until the rough draft is finished. I find that giving it away too early takes some of the steam out of it for me. I also like to trust my gut without any interference until that first draft is completed.

This past summer, however, taught me that maybe working in a vacuum isn't the best way and that it's time for a fresh approach. When I heard a friend talking about starting up a writing group, I immediately asked if I could join.

Our writing group met for the first time recently and it was great. I think we all felt a little apprehensive at first, maybe a little nervous, even. We started our first meeting by introducing ourselves, giving a brief history of our writing work, and why we wanted to be part of the group.  Then we each read aloud a page or two of a piece we were working on and gave each other positive feedback only for this first time around. We spent the rest of our time lay down the ground rules for how we were going to conduct our meetings. By the time we left I think we were all feeling pretty confident that this was going to be a good experience.

Are you thinking about starting a writing group? If so, the most important step is establishing ground rules before anything else happens. Here are some things to consider:

Keep Your Group Small. Our group is made up of six people and I think this just might be an ideal number.

Pick a Neutral Location. We chose a casual restaurant in a central location. This took the hosting pressure off all of us.

Try to Choose Members with Similar Abilities. After we read our pieces aloud, we all admitted to breathing a sigh of relief that everyone in our group was beyond the "advanced beginner" stage. If your group is made up of writers with vastly different abilities, you're going to find that the writers with more experience will be bored, while the beginners might lose confidence.

Create a Schedule. Our group has chosen to meet once a month. We've divided the group into two sections: Group A and Group B. Group A will turn in work no later than a week before our next meeting in February; Group B will submit work in March, and so forth. Our meetings will be two hours long. The first half hour or so will be for eating, settling in, chatting. We will then devote 30 minutes to discussion of each piece.

Place Word Limits. For now, we have limited each submission to 3,000-5,000 words, to make the process manageable for the readers. This rule will most likely need to be revisited as we go along.

Have a Facilitator. Members of the group that is not submitting work are each assigned a piece to facilitate. For example, since Group A is turning in writing in February, members from Group B have to take turns leading the discussion for one of the pieces. There are many ways to handle group discussion, but the bottom line is that it's important to assign one person to steer the group if they get off topic, to spark discussion if nothing is being said, and to mediate any disagreements that may arise.

What's your problem with the Oxford comma?

Decide on Rules for Providing/Receiving Feedback. This is the most important ground rule of all. Sharing one's writing is an extremely personal, humbling experience. Readers need to be sensitive and tactful. Every discussion should begin with the strengths of the piece. Sometimes it will be hard for readers to find things they like, but it's a great exercise to look for the positive--there will ALWAYS be something you can praise if you look close enough. Criticism should be honest, specific, and delivered with fairness and tact. It should always be framed with the intention of helping the writer. Saying something like, "I thought it was boring" is unhelpful. It's better to say, "The pace was too slow" or "It took to long for the story to get going". This is information the writer can use.

When it comes to receiving criticism, it's often a good idea for the writer not to speak at all during the discussion period unless a reader needs something clarified. This is a very difficult, worthwhile exercise. It forces the writer to really listen, instead of spending his time defending his writing. It's also excellent practice for reading future reviews, when you are forced to face criticism about your work but cannot respond to it. At the end of the discussion period, the writer may be given five minutes to ask questions.  

Be Flexible. Periodically check with writing group members that the ground rules are working. You may find that as time passes, you will need to make adjustments.

Do you have a writing group? What are your tips for running a successful group?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

An Interview With Poet Gary Rainford

I recently had the pleasure of hearing poet Gary Rainford read from his new collection of poems, Salty Liquor at an event called The Joy of the Pen, a literary awards reception sponsored by the Topsham Library.

Two things that are immediately striking about Gary. The first is that a love of language oozes out of his pores. The second is that he is eager to share that love with his audience. The minute he stepped out from behind the podium to read, he captivated everyone in the room. He is a family man, an educator, a resident of Swan's Island, and a unique talent. His winter tour schedule is as follows:

  • January 22 at Topsham Public Library, 6 PM, reading/book signing 
  • February 15 at Curtis Memorial Library, Brunswick, 1PM where he is a guest poet at Longfellow Days, a month long celebration of poetry  
  • March 19 at Monroe Community College, Rochester, NY, 1 PM, reading/book signing.
If you have the opportunity to attend one of Gary's readings, I highly recommend it. In the meantime, he was kind enough to share his thoughts about poetry, the creative process, and the writing life.

Congratulations on your new book of poetry, Salty Liquorand on receiving an Honorable Mention at the Joy of the Pen Literary Awards. I, like the rest of the audience, were captivated not just by your poetry but by your performance as well. You seem to have a genuine love of language that you're eager to share. 

Thank you. I do love language. Words have texture and configuration. A poem has texture and configuration, like a spectacular sunrise or sunset--it has that feel. Tom Waits has a song called, “That Feel.” He's talking about music, of course, songs, but that feel is everywhere. We know that feel when a movie scene twists our insides. We know that feel when we bite into the perfect combination of chocolate and salt. We know that feel when January's wolf moon cracks open the cloudy sky, like it did this morning at 4 AM when I got up to light the wood-stove and work. And I know that feelwhen I find it in a poem. I love that moment. And when we love, sharing spectacular moments makes perfect sense. How often do we call out for somebody to look outside the kitchen window with us to see a red tailed hawk or eagle soaring across the field or sky? Or some other occurrence that strikes us as original or spectacular? Similarly, I love sharing and performing my poems.  

Writers tend to be drawn to one literary form more than any other--why poetry? 

Poetry is an opportunity to tell stories, shape language, and it's a vocation. Although I've been writing poems since I was 12ish, two events during graduate school determined my way: 1. In 1991 I read a biography, Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California. I had never heard of Jeffers before but I was hooked on his poetry instantly and his way of life, living quietly and apart with his family on the rugged Carmel coast, honoring hard work while making poems. 2. A year later I was trolling poetry titles at Tower books and You Get So Alone At Times That It Just Makes Sense by Charles Bukowski hit me between my eyes like a sledgehammer. I devoured that book of poems and everything else he wrote. Bukowski and Jeffers taught me about life as poetry, and since my mid-twenties I've been carving out my own way as a poet. 

It’s been said that Maine has more writers per capita than any other state. As someone who grew up elsewhere, what do you think it is about Maine that lends itself to the vocation of writing? 

“We need the possibility of escape,” says Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire, “as surely as we need hope.” Maine is the perfect escape, especially for writers. Sublime ocean vistas. Mountains to the west. Farmland up north, if you have carrots and cabbage in your heart. Wild spaces still exist in Maine. Wild spaces are powerful and un-center creative people; they makes us recognize an important fact: we are not the center of the universe, or our community, or our household. Wild spaces remind us that we are all in this soupy chowder together. Plus, compared to other states I've lived, New York, California, and Oregon, Maine is affordable. The short story writer and novelist Doris Betts says, “Writing is a hard way to make a living, but a good way to make a life,” and I wholly agree. Life is expensive today, but a quality life, a writing life, is still possible, here, in Maine, The Way Life Should Be, if you're clever and independent.

Tell us about your writing life. Do you have a special writing space? What is your process?

My process doesn't change much, but my writing place is seasonal. Which means this time of year, especially when it's -9 degrees like this morning, I write as close to the woodstove in the kitchen as possible. The other six months I work upstairs in my office. Writing is a job. I wake up at 4AM, Monday-Friday, stoke the woodstove, microwave the cup of coffee I brewed the night before, set my laptop on the cutting board on top of the washing machine, and tap keys. I generally work on two to five poems at once, minimizing and maximizing documents as I need them. I take Saturday and Sunday off, unless I miss a morning due to extenuating circumstances, like my daughter recently who had pink eye and couldn't sleep and wanted to be with Daddy when he got up. I write for two / two and a half hours and wrestle as much inspiration out of this time as possible. Then my family begins to stir, and it's time for other things. Throughout the day I use an app on my phone or scraps of paper to keep notes about the lines or stanzas I'm working out in my head. Whatever it takes, whatever it takes . . .

Your poem "Nautica Pub" is about a waitress who reminds you of your grandmother, whom you describe as "a marked down, irregular sales event at Reny’s [a discount retail store] and a wrinkled chain smoker." The audience loved that line--it was a knockout. Another poem, "Smolder" is about your brother's substance abuse. Do you find it easy to write honestly about family, or do you approach the topic with some hesitation?

Every poem I write tries to capture what I believe is honest and real. My intent is never hurtful. Like I said before, poems have sunrise or sunset moments, moments of awe and/or discovery. My job is to flesh out that awareness, and the tools I use are the details of my life. My oldest brother has been sick with drugs for nearly 40 years, my mother is getting old and foggy, my body is not as strong as it used to be, and that is just the way it is. My observations are not unkind, I don't think, just literal. I learn a lot about myself by reflection. Reflection reminds me to act kindly, the way I want to be treated. My poems are reflections too, screen-shots of everyday life—it all contributes to who we are, where we are heading. I wrote hundreds and hundreds of poems before I landed on what I call a narrative-lyric style. Before this my work had no bones, breath, or conscience. In 1997 I was in my late 20s and published my first poem, “English Class For Stupid Kids,” a piece about me during high school. That poem discovered a public voice, one that looked outwardly as well as inwardly for muse, one that recognized the possible presence of readers. You have to write for yourself and you have to write for readers. Kurt Vonnegut said plot keeps readers reading, and as a technician of poetry, I believe plot keeps readers moving from one line to another to the next stanza. Readers connect with real people and real places, so I write without any hesitation about my personal experiences. If my grandmother were still alive, she'd light a cigarette and laugh like a rusty hinge at my description of her.   

I've never thought about plot applying to poetry.

I transferred to Stony Brook University as a junior, a declared computer science major, but not for long. One of my first classes was History of the English Language. My peers languished over our assigned texts, but I couldn't get enough. Beowulf, an 8th century epic poem, was one of our first readings—plot driven. Dante's 14th century epic poem, Inferno—plot driven. Evangeline, A Tale of Acadia, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow--plot driven. T. S. Eliot's, Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, published in 1915—plot driven. And just a few years ago contemporary poet Stephen Dobyns published, Winter's Journey. These are not epic poems in structure, like the others, but they are all plot driven: protagonist, narrator, conflict, action, setting, and language-economy compel these compact poems. I think plot in poetry is an example of everything old is new again. I was never formally taught about plot in poems, either, but our lives are all plot driven, every second, which is likely why I love working with this ancient and primitive structure.

Humor seems to be an important component to your work. Is it something you strive for or is it just a natural extension of your voice? 

This is all I need is one of the last scenes in the 1979 movie, The Jerk. Steve Martin's character, Navin Johnson, ascends from rags to riches, but by the end he's descending back to rags. Drunk and devastated he leaves his wife and mansion yelling, “I don't need you. I don't need anything.” As he shuffles away, pants around his ankles, Navin grabs an ashtray and says, “This is all I need.” Then he grabs a paddle-board, “This is all I need.” Then a TV remote control, matches, a lamp, a chair, and a magazine before the scene fades out, Navin slurring, “This is all I need.” The drama is tragic, but it's a hilarious scene. When I helped my mother relocate from upstate, NY, to Florida, recently, a similar tragicomedy played out. She was very stressed and agitated, not 100% ready move into a condo, but the house was being sold in less than three days.  As we headed out the door, so I could drive her to Logan Airport in Massachusetts, she stacked up miscellaneous items in her arms, including two full honey bear bottles, box of prunes, empty picture frame, backscratcher, teabags, mini open shampoo bottle, dog toy, and in my head I heard her saying, “This is all I need.” If you didn't cry, you had to laugh. Humor, for me, is medicine. I don't intentionally build humor into my poems, but if it arrives wearing a Bozo nose and white grease paint, I'm helpless. Who doesn't love to laugh? “The most wasted of all days,” says E. E. Cummings, “is one without laughter.” I cannot agree more.

In addition to being a poet, you also teach writing. How does teaching inform your work?

Every second I clock with students is a second I clock working on my own poetry. Teaching--literature, composition, and creative writing--is practice, and to prove I'm not a hypocrite, just ask my seven year old daughter how often I tell her, Practice makes progress. Teaching is additional time sharpening my ability as a thinker, reader, proofreader, editor, observer, decision maker, leader, backseat driver, skills I bring to every line I compose, every stanza. Talking to his students in The Triggering Town, a collection of essays, Richard Hugo says, “Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me.” And an unintentional consequence of teaching is learning about yourself, which is key for developing your own original voice and writing style. As a teacher, I give myself to others. As a writer, I give myself to others. Writing and teaching are joined by similar fates, the pursuit, insight, and medicinal effects of knowledge.   

 Tell us about your newest poetry collection Salty LiquorWhere does the title come from?

Salty Liquor is about fatherhood, family, hardship, and the power of place. Salty Liquor is not a euphemism for frozen margaritas, sea-salt rimming your glass, like some people first think.  The title is the closing line from the poem, “Low Tide,” which refers to the liquid inside a mussel shell, that last briny taste of delight, that complicated reward. Poems contain salty liquor too. It's the salty juices language leaves behind after we read poetry, a residue of words. Yesterday, at Town Office, a neighbor said she was thinking all morning about a line I wrote, “The path is lit with honey,” from the poem, “Clover.” She said she feels more like she's stuck in honey than lit by it and needs to make some changes in her life. That's the salty liquor talking.

Here's a poem from Salty Liquor--perfect for this time of year.


It’s early. A gaunt morning moon 
is a frozen hole 
in the gray, still sky. 

The Captain Henry Lee, our ferry, 
won’t be crossing today. 

The island, cut off, locked down, 
is without electricity. Or telephone. 

Giant and collapsed ice heaves 
like megaliths 
clutter Mackerel Cove. 

The roads are frozen. Snowdrifts 
are frozen. Deep, artesian well 
casings are frozen. Domestic hot water 
pipes are frozen. Septic lines, frozen. 
Gas lines, frozen solid, too, 
and my pickup truck wouldn’t start 
last Friday. 

Buddy at the dump described oil 
in his Cherokee as slushy. 

January doesn’t thaw 
until the very first purple crocus bulb 
blooms in May.
(Rainford, Gary. Salty Liquor. Unity, Maine: North Country Pres, 2014. Print.)

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

5 Goals and 1 Wish For 2015

I'm not a fan of New Year's Resolutions. They are usually framed as promises we make to ourselves that rely on frequency of action (I will go to yoga 3x a week) or rigid discipline (I will never eat sugar again) that are too difficult to maintain. Instead, I'm more of a fan of setting yearly goals--it keeps me  focused but allows me a little flexibility in how I achieve those goals. At the end of every year, I like to review my list to see how I did.

Here are the professional goals I reached in 2014:

1) READ MORE. I nailed this one, mostly because I was purposely vague. I'm a slow reader and it's hard for me to commit to specific numbers. Still, I upped my game on this one and it felt good.

2) GET 100 TWITTER FOLLOWERS. Again--I totally hit this one out of the park, mostly out of ignorance. I had joined Twitter and didn't realize I had to reach out to get followers. I was hopelessly stuck at 40 followers for a month or two, so 100 seemed like a reasonable stretch. Then my friend clued me in and now I'm up to 1,200 followers--still a modest number. By the way, if you'd like to follow me, I'm @stephdoyon. Thank you!

3) FINISH FIRST DRAFT OF MANUSCRIPT. I did this and it felt beyond great. No tricks here, just a lot of focus and hard work.

4) START BLOGGING AGAIN. Finishing my manuscript allowed me to return from blogging hiatus and I've really enjoyed it, though generating content isn't always easy.

Goals I didn't reach:

1) SELL MY MANUSCRIPT TO A PUBLISHER. For the past five years, every time I see my accountant for tax prep I tell him, "I didn't make any money this year, but I will next year." And every year I'm wrong. It looks like I'll have to say it again in February. I'm sure my accountant stopped believing me a long time ago, anyway. This was a painful goal not to achieve, but Mr. Agent says the manuscript isn't ready yet and he's so brilliant I tend to believe him. 

But that's all in the past...Let's look toward the big, bright future, shall we?

Here's my list of 5 professional goals for 2015:

1) READ 52 BOOKS. I'm now ready to commit to a number! Look at me, being all brave and stuff. I might have to stock up on slim novels to accomplish this goal. Among the books on my list--Middlemarch by George Eliot (never finished it in college--I read too slowly to keep up) and re-reading Kent Haruf's Plainsong trilogy. RIP, Mr. Haruf. You were inspiring.

2) POST MORE OFTEN. This one's dicey. Right now, I'm averaging 2 posts a month. I would love to post once a week, but I find it often intrudes on my limited writing time. More is all I can strive for this year, whatever that may turn out to be.

3) CONTINUE TO BUILD PLATFORM ON SOCIAL MEDIA. In addition to the blog and Twitter, I've been dabbling in Goodreads and Pinterest. I've also tried to be more active on trade-related Facebook sites. It's been fun to see how all these platforms work together. My goal is to slowly raise my profile through social media, so I'll have an audience in place when (fingers crossed) my next book is published. The trick though, is not to waste too much time on it.

4) FINISH SHORT STORY. I'm not a short story writer. I have a tendency to e-x-p-a-n-d. Still, short story writing is a great discipline. I have an old story that's been kicking around in the drawer for a while that I really want to finish. To this end, I have joined a writing group.  

5) FINISH MY MANUSCRIPT. This is my top goal of the year--whip this damn manuscript into fighting shape. I. WILL. DO. IT.  And if all goes well...

My 1 Wish:

1) SELL MY MANUSCRIPT TO A PUBLISHER. I've realized that this is more of a wish than a goal, because goals are things in your power and getting published is largely out of my control. All I can do is create my best work and the rest is out of my hands. I really hope this happens. If not, I may need to find a new accountant.

What are your writing goals and wishes for 2015?