I participated on a panel discussion with two wonderful writers, Cindy LaFerle and Claire Charlton, at the Detroit Working Writers annual conference on Saturday, May 21. Our panel description: Creative Non-Fiction: How to Write Rock Solid Feature Stories and Essays. All three of us are freelance journalist-types who either write features, magazine-style essays, or both.
We slanted our preparation with freelance writers and journalists in mind, but the make-up of the audience – and a very good audience, I might add: smart and inquisitive – included writers who may have been more interested in literary essays and memoir. In book form.
Fortunately, Cindy, a gifted speaker, was able to field questions such as the old, “how-much-do-you-rat-on-your-family-members-in-memoir-pieces” with a charmed authority.
Still, even though my writing experience may be different from what I sensed is the preferred path of our audience, I have thoughts, yes, thoughts, for you more literary types, from your non-literary writing friend.
Writing is a tough, competitive field. So if you want to make progress with essay or memoir writing there has to be some energy driving you forward because you are likely to experience silence, if not outright rejection, as you make your way in the crazy world of publishing.
I started my writing career with personal essays – the type published in commercial magazines and newspapers. I was working in the IT industry, either full or part-time depending on the time period, while participating in the sport of child-rearing with my husband.
Two things pushed me to write – job dissatisfaction – the nagging sense I wasn’t in the right career – and being a parent. I was fully committed to becoming the Perfect Parent but could never implement the advice from the many, many, many, many parenting books I’d either found at Borders or checked out from the library.
There was a lot of tension, friction, energy, what-have-you in those two situations and the only way I knew to resolve them was to write. I hadn’t studied writing in college. I was practical and got a business degree, with a major in Personnel Administration, now known as Human Resource Management. I wasn’t planning to write the Great American Novel, either. Not sure I even had any talent. But this creative urge pushed me forward.
So I think that’s the first thing you really need to experience a bit of writing success. That something that gives you energy and pushes you forward. No need to know from whence it came. Said Pam, resorting to bad Shakespearean writing.
Then, you have to have a blind faith you are on the right track, that this is the path for you, and find ways to throw your writing out into the world. Participating in writing groups and submitting essays for publication are two energy forces I used to get mine out there.
Someone asked – who do you submit to? It’s hard to define the process for submission because the writing biz changes what seems like daily, especially since magazines, newspapers, literary journals and on and on exist on the Internet as much if not more than they do in print. But here is one technique for doing so, and it’s behavioral-based: throw a bunch of sh!t against the wall and see what sticks. To get the kind of information you need to move forward, the Internet and the library are your friends. Google is your friend. Other writing friends are your friends. The ability to brainstorm is your friend.
I like to think the definition of creativity is making something out of nothing. So too is the progress you make in writing, including the avenues you’ll find for publication.
How did my essays get published here and there when I first started out? I think because I was so in-the-moment when I wrote my parenting and family-life essays. They were relatable and I was lucky enough that the few editors who accepted them for publication thought so, too. But this was before the Internet was EVERYWHERE. If I were starting out today I’d have to use a different approach.
See? There are no answers. Proceed as if you know what you are doing even if you have no idea what that is.
Yes, there will be a part two.