Thursday, April 24, 2014

Alumni Voices: Sherryl Clark

Loneliness vs. Solitude &
The Long Distance Writer

When I think about being a long-distance writer, literal distance is not what comes to mind first. My fellow Hamline students and faculty know that I travelled over 100,000 miles to get to Hamline during the two years of my MFAC, because I live in Australia. But it wouldn’t matter where I lived – for every writer, it’s the writing itself that is the marathon, the huge journey, and it can involve experiences of both solitude and loneliness.
(Not to scale)

We need solitude to write. Oh, how we need it! One of the things I ask my students is – where do you write? Do you have a place that is all your own, where you can shut the door? I wrote at home, on the kitchen table, for more than 20 years. From that table, I could see outside and yet be inside, and inside my head, because I was the only one there.

Then my husband retired, and suddenly I realized that, no matter how quiet he was, it was almost impossible to write with him in the house. I tried the library, the cafĂ©, the room outside with the dust and the spiders (even after I cleaned it up, there was still dust). It’s a little better now, but I still yearn for that wonderful daily solitude I used to have.

Residency at Hamline is the opposite! It’s all about writing for 11 straight days and every time, I couldn’t wait to get there and dive in. But away from Hamline, it’s easy to feel lonely, to miss that buzz and excitement, that total focus on what matters most – your writing. In between residencies, I kept the loneliness at bay through emails and letters to my advisors, and through my class Facebook group. I reminded myself that, hey, they weren’t all going out for coffee and having a great time together without me! They, too, lived long distances from each other. We were all in the loneliness together, and still connecting.

Writing can be the loneliest profession in the world, if you know no other writers. Writing groups, writing friends, mentors, friends who “get it” – make all the difference. They support you when your spouse grumbles about your daydreaming, when your mother asks you when you’re going to get a real job, when your kids throw tantrums because you’re not at their beck and call 24 hours a day. We have to fight every day to make time for our writing, to keep some of our headspace for our current novel, and to grab that solitude with both hands and hold on tight.

I’m about to go on a different kind of residency, sponsored by the May Gibbs Trust here in Australia. It will be four weeks (two now, two later) of time alone in another city to write. Blessed solitude.

Who knows what writing will come out of it? Big advances in current projects, or something wild and new? But I know anytime I’m feeling a little lonely, I can go online and be cheered up by a writer friend somewhere in the world!

Sheryll Clark is a July 2013 graduate of the MFAC program. She lives in Melbourne, Australia. To find out more about Sheryll and her writing, visit her website. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Faculty Voices: Eleanora Tate

A Few Essential Ingredients
for My Writing Stew

After eating another bowl of my chicken vegetable stew, I lean back in my Bentwood rocker, with bulging belly. I’ve been making this same basic stew for years. I only cook stews that I know I’ll love to eat.

Eleanora  E. Tate
It’s the same with my writing. I can only write books that I know I’ll want to read. I’ve been writing for sixty plus years—since at least third grade, when I remember writing my first short story.  After eleven middle-grade realistic fiction, historical fiction, or biography novels, and numerous magazine stories later (not to mention hundreds of newspaper feature stories, weddings, engagements and yes, obituaries), I realize that some of the same basic ingredients in my chicken vegetable stew are also present in my literary stew.

The Pot
. First I must have the right pan in which to prepare my stew—the steel bottomed brown Dutch oven style one. For my characters I also must have the right pan—aka setting—in which to place and prepare them. What happens to them is dependent on where their experiences mainly occur, like Gumbo Grove, SC; Raleigh, NC; Harlem, NY; Nutbrush, MO. Raisin Stackhouse, Big Boy, Big Head, and Celeste wouldn’t be who they are in my books if I placed them in some other town and state, and neither would my stew.

Pot Liquor
. The spices, vegetables, and bits of chicken bubbling in my liquid are what make my stew juicy. It’s not just tomato-flavored water. Renowned storyteller Jackie Torrence, the “Story Lady,” called this leftover liquid in the pan “pot liquor” in her landmark book of tales The Importance of Pot Liquor. Pot liquor was a “southern staple” during the days of enslavement, Torrence wrote. Enslaved people, having mostly only scraps of fatback, ham hocks, and collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens and beans for their meals, cherished the leftover liquid for its nutritional value, and saved it to initiate the next meal. Pot liquor helped to keep people alive in the face of from “can’t see” in the morning to “can’t see” at night after unbelievably debilitating toil.

Meaningful juices, too, must flow through my characters’ veins to make them come alive during their experiences and to hold the story together. One might call these literary juices themes.

Ms. Torrence, by the way, was one of the world’s most respected and accomplished storytellers. She captivated audiences merely by the sound of her voice, choice of words, and facial expressions. Storytelling aspirants should study her performances. Oral storytelling (orature) is not gyrating around the stage, dressed in costumes, shouting and howling.

Got to have cornbread with stew, for sopping up the last of the juice, crumbling into the stew, satiating my needy taste buds either way. In writing, that cornbread might be my regional vernacular—phrases I use in narration or in dialogue reflective of where my characters live (that anybody living there might reasonably use), and at least one relative who advises my main character.  

Regional vernacular isn’t jargon that imitates phonetically in print how I think my characters are “supposed” to talk according to stereotypes of race and ethnicity.  “But they said it that way!” some writers wail. Having heard it said in real life doesn’t make it right or appropriate to write down for publication.

cornbread in my books are the comfort kin—a grandmother like Mary Elouise’s grandmother, Celeste’s father, or Zambia’s Aunt Limo. They were folks who loved their young relatives unconditionally and will let them curl up beside them when times were tough.

I begin cooking my chicken with the meat still on the bone, and let them simmer until the meat falls off the bones. Then, of course, I remain the bones. To me cooking with the bones on help to give my stew body. The marrow gleaned from the inside and the calcium from the outside enrich the stew and me. In my books body could also mean substance, and character. My little Black Girl warriors must have spirit, determination, intelligence, common sense, humanity—i.e. character—to enrich their lives, too. Though Mary Elouise in Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.! and Zambia in A Blessing in Disguise might not be smart or show common sense at the beginning of the story, they will have learned something about consequences and common sense—enriched—by the end.

. I like a variety of vegetables in my stew—red and green peppers, green peas, red homegrown tomatoes (or tomato soup), brown, black, red and green beans, white and red onions and garlic, orange carrots, yellow corn. They each serve nutritious, tasty purposes. I don’t just throw them in.

I don’t “throw in” characters of color into my books, either. Each character has a purpose (and so does the ethnicity). I believe in conducting sufficient research to make it so. My stew is not a meal I cook just to be doing something and my books are not “art for arts’ sake.” I don’t believe in “casual diversity” and I don’t believe in being a “culture vulture” who the late beloved storyteller Mary Carter Smith warned us about. Writers who write about cultures foreign to them have the right to do—even the right to write about them poorly, but they don’t have the right to squawk when their terrible efforts are justifiably criticized.

. Like cayenne pepper, paprika, onions and garlic, turmeric, Kitchen Bouquet, basil, bay leaf and other flavorings in my stew, humor, metaphors, similes, and description in my writing spice things up. When used selectively humor can have a place in even in the most dreadful situations. Humorist Eddie Murphy spiced up his early stand-up comedy routines by stringing together hot words to describe objects and people. I borrowed his technique in my Front Porch Stories at the One-Room School chapter “Possum in the School.”

Here’s my description of Smokey, a Chihuahua who the teacher thinks is a possum:
“Smokey was a pointy-nosed, swaybacked, fat-bellied, bald-headed, bug-eyed, white-haired Chihuahua with a long, skinny tail. Smokey had scratched so much over the years that he didn’t have much hair on his little head, those little legs, or that stringy tail. And those few little patches of hair on the rest of him? They stayed gray and speckled with black dirt from where he rolled in the mud to relieve the itching he had everywhere else.”

When Smokey waddles out of the storeroom of her one-room school the teacher shrieks, “Get your bad-luck, snaggle-toothed, grave-robbing, garbage-eating, rat-nosed self out of my school this minute!”

A “Spicy” Tate Tip
: When I conducted creative writing residencies for elementary school students I used Front Porch Stories’ possum chapter to inspire them to write stories about something in their classrooms that they had to try to remove. Of course, the students alleged that they didn’t know how to write about anything. I told them to first identify a couple of specific animals, places and/or objects in their own classrooms. Then they created lists of spicy (succinct) modifiers of those subjects, according to taste, smell, touch, sight, sound and/or personal opinion.

This warm-up writing propelled them into producing great passages and eventually some fine original stories. It was harder for their teachers to visualize their classrooms like this until they were prodded into releasing inhibitions.

Another “Spicy” Tate Tip
: Read Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, her spectacular 2011 National Book Award winner. In this epic chronicle about an impoverished Mississippi family facing and struggling through Hurricane Katrina in the bayous as told in the present tense through pregnant teen daughter Esch’s eyes, Ward’s metaphors and similes are riveting, like these similes: “Even though we are in the shade, the heat is worse in the shed, like the inside of a hot fist.” (99) Esch looks out into the storm through the open roof of a shack on the hill where she and her brothers and father had swam after raging waters had destroyed their own: “The sky was so close (with the low-hanging clouds) I felt like I could reach up and bury my arm in it.” (238)

Ward actually lived through Hurricane Katrina and so knew whereof she wrote. That doesn’t mean that one must experience everything that one writes about, but in many cases it certainly helps. It’s good to sample the stew; experience from having cooked stews in the past tells me exactly what to add.

Metaphor and simile addicts should analyze Ward’s book to study her techniques of craft. But remember, just because Ward did it doesn’t mean everybody can write like that—or should.
There’s more to my stews and certainly more to my writing, but I’m full right now. Enjoy!

Happy eating! Happy reading!

©2014 By Eleanora E. Tate

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Alumni Voices: Loretta Caravette

When I was working on my Masters at Hamline University in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I asked a visiting editor, “What are you looking for?” He told me not to worry about what he wanted, and then said, “Just write your book.”

I spent the next two year learning how to do just that. After graduating I began to submit my manuscripts. A year later I was still submitting. I was frustrated, confused, and no closer to understanding how to reach the publishing world that I felt should embrace my stories.

When the idea and opportunity to be an agent arose, I jumped at the chance because I saw it as a way of getting an inside look at the publishing world. I hoped to understand the people and the process of publishing better.

When I think back to what I’d asked the editor, I realize that the real question should be “How do you know which publishing house is right for your story?” Answering that is the first challenge facing any agent.

As I got going, consulting the Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market was good for getting brief descriptions and addresses, but it was still difficult determining what kinds of books publishers liked. Every house has a website, which helped. Catalogues are also good, but tastes change, especially when the head people change.

I decided I had to go there and talk with these people face to face. Most houses are in New York, but there are others scattered around the country. There’s even a house in Chicago, my hometown. It took me a while to figure out who was who and get updated names and titles. While all this information was available on the Internet, I also made quite a few calls to the different houses in order to verify spellings and titles

I went to New York. For three days I went to as many publishing houses as I could. Each meeting was better than the next. Everyone was more than happy to share what they were looking for and they proudly showed off their most recent titles. I felt very energized by these visits. I learned so much and felt I was beginning to understand the publishing world. I will continue to make these trips because I feel meeting face-to-face is important. People buy from people.

All this information moved me closer to knowing I can find the right house for the right story. But even when the match is perfect it doesn’t always work; just recently I received a no from a publisher because the story I submitted was too similar to something they already had. Another story, which the Associate Editor loved, just wasn’t going to work for her editor. “It was just a little too different. Not cute enough.”

I appreciated all these comments and can move on, working harder to get the right connection.

As my agency expands, I know that most of the clients I take on will be writers without a publishing track record. That presents a unique problem because these writers are an unknown entity. Here is where Marketing and PR is going to play a big role. We are a team, the author/illustrator, me and the publishing house. We all bring our experiences to the table. Together we will strategize. There are the traditional methods: school visits, library readings, bookstore appearances, websites, and social media. But there still needs to be some out-of-the-box ideas. Fresh approaches and some novel ways are called for in today’s competitive climate. Recently I learned some book publishers are considering displaying YA novels in places where their audience might shop for clothes. Why not!

Another indispensable part of the team is a knowledgeable lawyer. I would like to say that I know all the nuances of contract negotiations. But, since I haven’t sold any books YET that’s a little hard for me to address. I was a television producer for about twenty year. I do know about television contracts and royalties, so I feel comfortable with the idea of rights and control of intellectual property. Still, the lawyer will ensure my clients are protected.

It’s been one year since I started, and I’ve learned that my job as an agent is to 1. Keep learning and paying attention as this business continues to evolve 2. Be responsible for assembling the team that will create the best chances for my writers’ work to succeed.

Your job, writers, is to keep writing.

Loretta Caravette is a 2009 graduate of the MFAC program and the founder of LR Children’s Literary. She is interested in seeing picture books, Early Readers, Chapter Books, and Middle Grade and YA in all genres. Submission guidelines and contact info is available on the agency website.