Why I Believe in Mentoring or Why Tanya Michaels Is Awesome

I pick this one only because it’s one of my favorites.

On Monday I talked a bit about why I believe it’s important to give back. Now I’m going to get specific.

Once upon a time, I was an unpublished author in Georgia Romance Writers. I had already made the transition from thinking “surely I can write a romance. Those have to be easy!” to “Wow, this is really challenging. I want to learn more.” I’d joined GRW, took a child-bearing sabbatical, and rejoined. I was paying particular attention to Tanya Michaels because she’d written both women’s fiction AND romance, something that I wanted to do. I picked up her books and gained even more appreciation for her. Then I ran into her at our local PTA meeting, and she turned to her daughter and said, “This is Miss Sally. She’s a writer just like me.”

Wow. Just like me.

Keep in mind that this was the 2007-2008 school year. I hadn’t even written The Happy Hour Choir yet. I had finished at least four manuscripts, but not a one was going anywhere. I didn’t even have a contest final under my belt. Tanya, meanwhile, had just published her women’s fiction debut and was on the cusp of a four book series with Harlequin. She had to have had at least twenty books under her belt, Maggie wins, RITA nominations. There are many authors who wouldn’t have seen an unpublished author they barely knew as a writer “just like me.”

Since I lived so nearby (and had a propensity for calling her and asking her about her experiences with the school system when my son managed to get suspended from first grade), she asked me if I would find being her PAL. In Georgia Romance Writer speak, a PAL is someone who reads the book and plugs it on behalf of the author. I happily agreed. Then I helped her out with some PTSA stuff. Eventually, we started critiquing together and hanging out together since we have kids in the same grade and, more importantly, because we both sing the song of the geek.

Then I found out I wasn’t the only author Tanya has helped. She has invited unpublished authors for lunch. She has participated in the Gin Ellis Workshop (a meeting where published authors critique manuscripts of the unpublished in preparation of the chapter contest, the Maggies) almost every year, has judged the Maggies, and has served on both the chapter board and the national board. Even more importantly, she makes a point of seeking out authors in whom she sees potential. She’s referred two authors that I know of to her agent. Her agent passed on both of us, but we’re both published—or about to be.

So I’ve been nominating Tanya Michaels every year that I could for the Nancy Knight Award. If it were just me she’d helped, that would be one thing. I don’t think she has a clue how many critiques she’s given, how many words of inspiration in workshops, how many little pick-me-up gifts, or how many simple words of encouragement she’s given her fellow writers. That’s the kind of mentorship I think Nancy Knight meant when she said published authors owed it to those coming up behind us.

Nancy herself has done so much more than I’ll ever know. She’s taught classes, stepped in to take extra critiques, and has always been encouraging in a very honest, tough love sort of way. She definitely inspired Tanya who mere seconds before winning the award leaned over to me and whispered, “Can I be like Nancy when I grow up?”

Last thoughts on the subject: when I say that I feel those of us who get a book published owe it to those coming up behind us, I don’t necessarily mean we should edit their manuscripts for them or automatically take them over to meet our agents. If newbies are looking for that sort of relationship, then they need to find another organization. Mentoring relationships should be allowed to grow organically. Just as agents can really only pitch work that they feel strongly about, authors can only get behind the authors and works that speak to them.

I’m especially fond of this one for two reasons: Justin and it’s dedicated to me. *sniff*

Newbies, be open. Help out where you can. Every published author would appreciate book reviews. Make sure you honestly love the book, though–don’t do these things for mercenary purposes. Also, you can help out your writing organizations by using your other skills. Expert in web sites? Offer to be the chapter’s web mistress. Good at money? Offer to be treasurer. Excellent salesperson? Ask to work on promotions for the local contest or chapter. Along the way, you’ll meet all kinds of authors, both published and un. Some of your fellow newbies will be just as valuable to you as any published author, and the relationships you cultivate with published authors will be organic and genuine. You know, you can’t hurry love, and you shouldn’t hurry your book to publication, either.

So that’s why I’m so proud of Tanya Michaels for winning the Nancy Knight Award. That’s why I’m so appreciative of every piece of advice, warmth, and encouragement I’ve gleaned from Nancy herself. That’s why I want to do my best to help those writers who are just starting down the road to publication.

Lending a Helping Hand in Publishing

The Nancy Knight Award

Sometimes I’m reminded of exactly how hard it is to have a philosophical discussion on Twitter. Especially while simultaneously conducting my presidential duties of tweeting Maggie winners. One thing I am thankful for? Followers who respectfully question the things I tweet. The other night I tweeted something Nancy Knight said (Once you make it to publication, you owe it to the folks behind you to help you out.) Now, my apologies to Nancy because that is one statement she made out of context, and just the sort of statement that might inspire us but shouldn’t be taken as a blanket rule for writers everywhere. Before I give my philosophy on the subject, let me give you the opportunity to read through the mish-mash of tweets I collected. (Any apologies to Tiffany, Cyndy, Voirey, and Karen–I tried to be true to the convo but, damn, we all tweet a lot, and I may have missed something important) Here’s a taste of our discussion on The “Obligation” of the Published Author.

I’m a huge believe in giving back. This philosophy extends to everything I do. For example, I had a truly horrible first year as a teacher, so I went to every newbie after me and offered to help them in every way I could. Most were more than deserving of the tiny bit of assistance I could offer. Some didn’t want or need my help. Some didn’t deserve my help. This is how I approach writing books, too. Unfortunately, getting a book published is about a million-gazillion times more complex than helping a new teacher settle in–and teaching ain’t exactly a cake walk. Here are just a few of things you have to consider:

  • legal ramifications–what if someone steals your idea or accuses you of stealing theirs?
  • professionalism–what if you introduce someone to an editor or agent only to have them act like an ass?
  • time–most of us have a finite supply and can’t give it all up to critiquing, judging, mentoring, etc
  • toxic relationships–what if the person you try to assist turns out to be crazy pants? or to reflect badly on you in front of the very small world of editors and agents?
  • parasitic relationships–what if the person ends up wanting all of your help without offering any sort of assistance in return?

Y’all. Those are just the things I can think of off the top of my head.

So why in heaven’s name would anyone want to help out a new author? And what does that even mean?

Primarily, I think as a published author, each person should do what he or she is comfortable doing, which may be nothing. In my case, I entered contests and critiques, so I offer to judge contests and critiques. Now, there may come a time when I have to stop doing this. The publishing world is ever changing.  Many published authors have already been advised against judging or critiquing; some have been expressly forbidden by their publishers. At one point, one of my published partners was afraid she might have to stop critiquing with me because I wasn’t published yet. I hate these sorts of blanket edicts, but I can understand where the publisher is coming from. All it takes is one law suit from one cracked pot, and–suddenly–they are out a ton of money. This, along with the behavior of some newbie writers, is why the rest of us can’t have nice things.

When we agree to help someone, we’re putting our own image on the line. Since I’m not exactly the most, um, polished person you will ever meet, I am SO, SO grateful to each and every author friend who has introduced me to an editor, agent, or fellow author. Thank you. I hope I haven’t embarrassed you too much. To each and every contest judge–even the ones who hated me–thank you for taking time out of your schedule to help me. To each and every successful writer out there who chats with me on Twitter, thank you for not running for the hills. And to anyone who wonders if I only did something nice because I want something? Don’t even worry about it. That is SO not how I roll. If I do something nice, it’s because I want to. The end.

So, now I’m in the position where people actually ask me for advice. I’m quite newly in the position of giving back. Having so recently transferred from a position of receiving advice to giving it, let me share some advice* for newbies that will hopefully keep published authors hanging around a little longer:

1. No one owes you anything. Yeah, yeah, I know what Nancy said. But that word “owe” is for those of us who’ve worked hard and simply can’t imagine not paying it forward. Not every author feels this way. Not every author should feel this way. If you walk into a writing group and say something like “But the reason for the published authors is to help the rest of us get published” then you aren’t going to make many friends much less cultivate relationships with anyone who could be a mentor. You’re going to those meetings to observe and learn. If someone offers to assist you, say thank you and try not to ask for more than was offered.

2. Expect to start your critiquing career with other unpublished writers. I think a lot of newbies enter a group thinking they’ll be paired with a NYT Bestseller who will show them the ropes. Oh, no. Expect to work with different writers, most of whom are at about your writing level. Expect to move on from some relationships and never take it personally. Finding a critique partner is kinda like finding a spouse, and you’ll have to do some dating before your find a soul mate. Now, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to critique with people whose ability is above yours. I have been lucky enough to work with many folks whose work I consider better than my own. Everyone I critique with now got published before I did, and with good reason.

3. Kill that ugly green monster. The sooner you get rid of your professional jealousy, the happier and more successful you will be. I’m not going to lie and tell you I didn’t go through a “why is that person published and I’m not” phase where I thought my own work was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I will tell you, however, that my work didn’t start improving until I stopped focusing so much on all the ways I thought I was right and instead started looking for the places I fell short. When I found my weaknesses and started working to improve them, I could honestly and genuinely be happy for the folks who were published before me. Honest to goodness, I am so proud of Anna Steffl, Jenni McQuiston, and Romily Bernard, just to name a few. By the time each one started putting out books, I was nothing but joyful for their successes and proud to have been a part, however miniscule.

4. Life ain’t fair and neither is publishing. There’s some bestseller out there whose work you hate. There’s at least one writer friend of yours–and maybe you’re the person–who either hasn’t been published or hasn’t been recognized for the awesome work they do. I’m sorry. That’s the way it is. All you can do is what Tiffany Reisz said: when you read something awesome tell someone about it.

5. Patience. There’s no shortcut, no magic pill, no secret handshake. Even if you take matters into your own hands and self-publish, the act of putting your work on a web site doesn’t mean you’re going to be an overnight bestseller. Chances are you’ll be lucky to end up with a royalty check for sixty-seven cents. I happen to have this on good authority.

5. Learn to consider the source. When you start out, it’s going to be hard to tell which advice givers actually know what they’re talking about. In a time when it’s relatively easy to get your work out there, lots of folks have suddenly become experts. This isn’t to say that traditionally published authors are the only keepers of the magic knowledge. Some of those writers have become disenfranchised and discontent and are just as confused about what’s going on as you or I would be.

6. Put on your big girl panties and take your criticism. Let’s say you don’t like the comments on your latest contest entry or what your most recent critique partner said. I hate to break it to you–mainly because it means I’m going to have to heed my own advice–there’s probably at least a grain of truth to anything that was said. If your reader is confused, it doesn’t matter how many times you think you explained the main character has an allergy to pumpernickel. One exception to this rule? If anyone writes something like “you need to look into a critique partner” when you already have three or says “you can’t write so give up,” then you should ignore those comments. You should report the last one to the coordinator of the contest. If it’s an editor or agent? Query someone else, although I haven’t run across any editors or agents who would even say something like that.

7. You gotta give to get. I’m a big believer in volunteerism. In Georgia Romance Writers, I’ve been on the conference committee (promo and editor/agent coordinator), served as PRO LIaison, Corresponding Secretary, Conference Co-Chair, Vice-President of Programs, and now President. Have I been tremendously effective? I’ve done my best–how about that. Word of caution? Volunteer because you honestly want to be helpful. If it’s all about you, it’s going to show. If you don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to do a job properly, then skip it. That said, I’ve met all of my critique partners through volunteering. I met my editor while working on the conference. I learned about my agent through one of my aforementioned critique partners. I don’t know if I believe in karma per se, but I believe being nice and genuinely helpful will get you quite a ways in this old world even when it feels like only the brash and selfish are getting anywhere.

So that’s pretty much what I have to say on giving back. Any other thoughts from either perspective?

Oh, and tune in next time when I’ll talk a little bit about the Nancy Knight Award and why it’s important to me.

*Advice is another word for opinion. My father has a saying for this: “Opinions are like a$$holes, everyone’s got one.” Please keep this in mind when I dispense advice. Or when anyone else does for that matter.

The Serious Side of Twitter

I remember those heady first days of my love affair with Twitter.

I discovered all of these smart, witty, compassionate people I would’ve never otherwise met. We chatted about our mutual likes and dislikes and shared jokes. We spoke of sports teams and Disney, and my biggest faux pas was not liking the Tapestry of Dreams Parade.

Ah, those were the days.

The past few months have been an emotional barrage. I’d start to list all of the things, but I don’t think I could even remember all of them. Maybe I’ve still made lame jokes like that one person at the party who uses humor inappropriately as a defense mechanism. Maybe I’ve expressed an opinion that’s diametrically opposed to yours. Maybe I’ve said nothing and you take that silence as condoning something you don’t believe is right.

Twitter—heck this blog post—has left me scrambling for words. I’m a writer. I don’t like to be at a loss for words. I like to have all the words handy. You have no idea how much praying has been going on, y’all. All the praying.* I’ve prayed for sick people, hurting people, people I don’t even know. I’ve prayed for wisdom, guidance, and discernment for higher ups who sometimes act as though I’ve prayed for the opposite.

Racism, sexism, violence—we can’t escape them on Twitter anymore.

On the one hand, I think this is a good thing. As long as no one’s taping the protests in Ferguson, it’s really easy to pretend that kind of brutality doesn’t exist. As long as no one comments on that review in The Economist, it’s easy for people to keep believing there were “good” slave owners. As long as there’s no video of Ray Rice punching his fiancee, we can keep on pretending domestic violence isn’t that big of a problem because it doesn’t happen to us.

And that’s not all. I can vouch for the fact that #yesallwomen receive threats and insults—happened to me on Twitter just the other day. Some random jacka$$ called me vile names and wished leukemia on my children—all because I dared to say women deserve better than the treatment he was dishing out. What about the female gamer who received death threats? How many of us would’ve even know about her situation without Twitter? I even saw tweets pointing out that Joan Rivers said some truly horrible things in her life and that her death was no excuse to whitewash her past. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Social media keeps the conversation going. Even when people aren’t commenting, they’re still reading and thinking and, maybe even, praying. At least these are the things I’m going to tell myself when I read yet another article about a special needs man who spent way too much time on death row because he was forced to sign a confession for a crime he didn’t commit. Or the next time a woman is blamed for her nude pictures being stolen.

Twitter is the great equalizer—or it will be until the muckety mucks higher up the corporate ladder decide to fiddle with it. And doesn’t that—along with the move to get rid of net neutrality—make you think someone out there doesn’t want people communicating?

Like Miss Scarlett, humor is my defense mechanism…

The one thing that worries me is how we’re using this new-found power. Are we sometimes protesting things just to protest? Are we RTing the outrageous just to get a rise out of people. (I’ve accidentally committed that particular sin with satire pieces. Twice.) And when we argue, are we doing so constructively? The hubs was telling me the other day that he managed to get one good thing out of one of his least favorite jobs. The boss there told everyone to assume positive intent. He wanted everyone to assume that person on the other end of the ridiculous all caps e-mail meant well and to take it from there. Now, clearly the guy who called me a whore and wished leukemia on my kids was not suffering from an overabundance of positive intent. We report him and block him and move on. But others in your timeline, do they mean to offend you? Heck, if I’ve offended you, then let me know. I’ll turn a shade of beet red over here and my face will get really warm. Then I’ll probably say I’m sorry because my goal in life is to not be a jerk. Human nature being what it is, I don’t always accomplish that goal, but I try.

And there you go. I’m going to be in the corner making #LaundrytheMusical jokes and sending the occasional picture of cows or David Tennant in a place he shouldn’t be. I’ll tweet too much about my cats and my kids and what I’m listening to on Pandora. Mind you, I’ll still pipe up every now and again with something ill-advised, some fragment of a thought when I can take it no more. But if you want to talk about important things, let’s talk. Let’s keep those conversations going.

As much as I miss those fun times, I guess Twitter’s all grown up now.

 

*Prayer and religion would be one of the other controversial things on Twitter. I just gotta be me. I promise I won’t ring your doorbell and ask you to listen to my testimony.

In Which Sally Ends Up With Cats

Blue FairySo…cats.

Yeah. I have cats.

At least that makes me a real writer now, right? You gotta have a pet to be a writer, right?

So here’s the story of how I ended up with cats:

The kids, of course, had mentioned over the years that they would like to have a pet. Considering the oldest is almost a teenager, I figured I ought to get on that whole pet thing. We don’t have a fenced in backyard, so that meant no outside dogs. Also, I didn’t want anyone or anything to wake me up at o’dark thirty wanting to go out into the elements for a bathroom session, SO no inside dogs. The Hobbit has mild allergies to both, so no inside cats. Ryan said ix-nay to birds. I said ix-nay to fish, rodents, or reptiles of any kind. This left our pet possibilities to pet rocks and outside cats.

Rocket learning to love Peyton Manning as instructed by Her Majesty

I started doing a little research, and I had yet to find a place that would let me keep a cat outside. I’m also not big on lying to shelters about it, but I still had more research to go and a couple of leads when Jenni McQuiston caught me at the end of a long day two at the Decatur Book Festival. Here’s how that conversation went:

McQ: Anybody want some cats.

Me: Maybe. [Jenni does serious double take here] Could they be outdoor cats?

McQ: Well, they’re barn cats so I don’t see why not.

Me: Then I think I probably can.

Blix and Rocket on Adoption Day

Blix and Rocket on Adoption Day

And the next thing I know I’m exchanging emails with the delightful Leah and making arrangements to adopt two cats immediately upon our return from our fall break cruise. Then I find out that my outdoor cats need to be indoor for a little while at least until they learn where they live. Then they are so charming I consider letting them be indoor/outdoor cats. And that’s where we are right now. Rocket and Blix have helped me sort laundry today already. Rocket has inspected both my laptop and this post to declare them good. Once I post this, then I’ll have to do ALL THE CLEANING. Rocket has already explored behind the couches and the top of the pine wardrobe and come out with dust bunny remnants on her whiskers and tail. She is not a fan of my housekeeping skills.

True to my word, though, Leah’s the one who taught them to use the litter box so I still haven’t had to potty train another creature.

P.S. Pray that our allergies don’t get the best of any of us, especially The Hobbit.

P.P.S. Yes, I know you’re thinking I’m going to be a total sucker and let them stay inside. Yes, you are probably right.

P.P.P.S. Anyone want to foster that golden pothos in the background? Apparently it’s poisonous to cats?!

Dwelling in Beulah Land

I started to say *I* borrowed this hymnal, but there are some incriminating doodles in the back that suggest otherwise.

I started to say *I* borrowed this hymnal, but there are some incriminating doodles in the back that suggest otherwise.

It never ceases to amaze me the things we take for granted that are particular to a certain country, region, or even family. This insular way of looking at life is one reason why I think it’s vitally important that all kids go new places, study in a university that’s not next door, and visit other countries. Am I going to be excited when my birdies leave the nest? Absolutely not, but I think knowledge is the best way to combat ignorance and insensitivity.

*steps off soap box*

I know, I know. What does any of that have to do with Dwelling in Beulah Land? Well, I’ve learned a lot of things over the years. What we always called butter beans? They are actually lima beans. What I’ve always known as butter cups? They’re really daffodils. And songs that I thought everyone knew? Obscure camp meeting tunes from a little brown book popular in the Methodist church. The Cokesbury isn’t even the official Methodist hymnal, but you would’ve never guessed that from where I went to church. A good number of the songs I know by heart–like Dwelling in Beulah Land–aren’t even in the official Methodist hymnal. Imagine my shock when I sent my story to its first contest, the Fire and Ice one up in Chicago, and I get back the comment, “Did you make this hymn up?”

Sacrilege!

Dwelling in Beulah Land was written in 1911 by Charles A. Miles. He went to school to be a pharmacist but ended up writing hymns. You may know another of his songs, In the Garden. When I went to find out more information about the song, I came up with very, very little. There’s a discourse about what Beulah Land really means (it comes from the Hebrew and is mentioned only once in the English Bible in the Old Testament) and a grainy picture of Mr. Miles. I did find out that the melody of the song is used in the national anthem of Fiji–God Bless Fiji. For some reason this gives me great joy.

Here’s the fun part: Dwelling in Beulah Land is a part of the Cokesbury hymnal. I’m going to attempt to boil down the history of the hymnal, which will tell you a lot about the song.

Note the shape notes--that tells you how old this book is--but not exactly because the title page with copyright is missing. Let's just say this hymnal was LOVED.

Note the shape notes–that tells you how old this book is–but not exactly because the title page with copyright is missing. Let’s just say this hymnal was LOVED.

Basically, the Methodist hymnal of the late 1800s swung back to the religion’s European roots. Meanwhile, camp meetings had taken hold of the nation–particularly in the South–and southerners loved them some gospel and even some African-American spirituals. As the Methodist hymnal continued to eschew these “popular” or “trashy and sentimental” upstarts, the people clamored for them. Add in a dose of southerners not liking the return to traditional and the northerners not liking anything the southerners wanted because…Reconstruction, and you have a little creative war going on as to which songs the church was going to sing. That war played itself out in my own church, albeit in subtle ways, by favoring the “little brown book” over the “big red one.” Fascinated by hymnal history? I gleaned all of this information from Steve West’s blog Musings of a Musical Preacher–and that post is just one of several that I plan to peruse at some point in the future.

The coolest part is looking at the history of one song in one hymn and realizing how it’s affected my work and my life. The Cokesbury is a celebration of the vernacular, a representing a musical style that is uniquely American. When I wrote the novel, I simply had a “What if…?” moment, but, hey, if it’s southern and it’s uniquely American, I’m intrigued by it.

Other than that? There’s not a lot to tell about the song itself. I’ve looked and looked, but what little information I can find goes back to Miles himself. It may not even be one of his favorite hymns and yet it inspired an entire novel from me. I suppose that’s the way it goes. Here’s a link to the lyrics of Dwelling in Beulah LandIf I had a recording of the Whitlock Ramblers, I’d attach that, but here’s a video of the Gaithers instead. (If you use your imagination, it won’t be hard to imagine the song as even jazzier.)

 

Joyce Carol Oates For the Win!

Joyce. Carol. Oates. Y’all.

I didn’t realize I would get to go to the Decatur Book Festival Keynote, but I am so glad I did. It’s not often you get to hear from an author who’s in most of your college textbooks. God bless the Salcedos for letting me crash at their place for the weekend. (BTW they are the hosts with the most. Not only did I have a place to sleep, but Nicki washed my GRW shirt for me, loaned me a hair band AND two pairs of socks because I’m a dork and all of my socks were still in the dryer when I left. But I digress.)

I’m sure someone was chagrined that I was texting while she spoke, sitting there with that eerie iPhone glow about me, but I assure you I was taking down notes because I didn’t have the bars to live-tweet the Keynote. SO here are the highlights from the 2014 Decatur Book Festival Keynote with Joyce Carol Oates:*

1. Joyce Carol Oates spends most of her time at home, writing where it’s quiet and her main companion is her cat. She said, “Sometimes I have interruptions…like this.”

2. JCO (Her abbreviation henceforth) once lived in a high rise and found that conducive to writing because “I never wanted to go down.”

3. Biographer Greg Johnson asked her if she was a window person or a wall person, and she said she was a window person. Johnson then pointed out that she has an essay called “My Corner” all about having a card table facing the wall and writing while looking into the corner. She laughed and said that was the problem with doing an interview with a biographer who could call her on things, that she’d written that essay a long time ago and she could vaguely remember it.

4. Johnson, the straight man in this interview, said that the academic environment had been conducive to her writing. Then he went on to cite her 40 novels, plays, novellas, and almost a 1000 short stories. Wanna see why his statement is funny? Just take a gander at this list of The Books of Joyce Carol Oates: Full List.

5. Talk went on to how JCO felt about being a writing professor. She cited Updike as having felt that young writers sucked the vitality out of him but said that she feels just the opposite and enjoys teaching that “there’s something wonderful about someone who cares deeply about writing. I love reading prose from people I’ve met.”

6. JCO won the National Book Award for Them in 1970, and Johnson asked her why she liked to set her stories against actual events. She said, “Shakespeare, for instance, was always working with some residue of history.” Then she pointed out that Tolstoy liked to write about individuals who represented the sides of a larger conflict. She said she liked to use an “imagined but not invented world.”

7. JCO spoke about how different authors wrote about the real life events that affect them and pointed out how Emily Dickinson only alluded to the Civil War while Walt Whitman jumped right in there and addressed the conflict.

8. Then JCO spoke about form, how as an academic she’s used to “fiddling with form.” She told the story of how Oprah chose We Were the Mulvaneys as a book club selection. What surprised her most about that experience was how the readers of Oprah’s book club responded to her work. As an academic she was used to analyzing works and having her works analyzed with an almost clinical precision, but readers in Oprah’s book club wanted to hug her and to get her to sign the book because they really connected with her characters and her. People would say things like, “If my daughter had read your book then she wouldn’t have committed suicide. (This is in bold because this is one of my favorite things that JCO said)

9. From there, Johnson returned to her almost 1000 short stories and asked her both what she liked about the form and how she went about writing so many. JCO said the first step was to start with a feeling (ex. how someone broke your heart, how much you loved your grandmother, how much your grandmother loved you). The second step was to determine how you would write the story to express that feeling (long or short, poetic or sparse, dialogue or monologue). Step three? Execute.

10. JCO read from Mastiff, and I learned something very important about doing readings for the public: stop where a character is bleeding and potentially dying. Then people will be forced to buy the book to see what happens. Well played, JCO, well played.

11. JCO then spoke of Prison Noir, a collection of short stories from prisoners. She served as the editor. She said that one of the stories was contributed by a woman who was in prison for killing her husband in self-defense. JCO asked why she was in prison if it was self-defense and was told that the woman didn’t have a very good lawyer. JCO mused that life isn’t fair. That it could just as easily been her in prison and the prisoner editing the anthology. (She earned a lot of brownie points from me for this compassion and understanding of how chance can override ability.)

12. JCO has a short story about Robert Frost that caused a stir because he comes across as a lascivious old man who called other poets like e.e. cummings “fakes.” Well, JCO took all of the quotes directly from Frost. (I must get her new short story collection so I can read this story in its entirety) Best thing JCO says in response to the haters? “[Frost] didn’t believe in the New Deal. He didn’t believe in any deal. He wanted people to be poor…so they could write poetry. But it’s all authentic.” (from Lovely, Dark, Deep)

And then we came to the part of the program where folks could ask questions.

13. Dude asks for advice. JCO says, “Oh, you want some advice? The best advice is no advice. I don’t think people actually listen to advice.” She did back up and agree with “Persevere” but only because “You can’t tell people to give up.” (At this point, I’m a little in love with JCO. Not gonna lie.)

14. Another person pointed out that as much as she likes teaching, teachers don’t come across too well in her works. JCO goes back to her discussion of Updike and says it’s all about personalities. She likes to teach, likes to pair older authors like Henry James with newer authors like Lori Moore. She added, “That’s another reason people teach. They learn something by teaching.” and that her older students were such empathetic readers.

15. Apparently, JCO has an essay on running and writing. She spoke of long walks and getting ideas from those walks referring back to folks like Dickens, Wordsworth, and James who would also go on long walks as a part of their writing process. She said that she would run up Bayberry Hill and know there were ideas up there waiting for her. (Among the cattle and the sheep, I might add. Cow reference #FTW)

So clearly not a sock puppet.

16. The next question came from a audience member who’d been involved with a play called Recent Tragic Events. Apparently, Joyce Carol Oates is a character in the play but portrayed by a sock puppet. He asked if she’d seen the play, and she said she was afraid to go because people would say, “You’re a sock puppet!” and had previously stated that “If there’s any craziness written about me, it should be my own…it’s not fair.” Then, keeping the upper hand, she said to the man, “I know. You just came tonight to see if I’m a sock puppet. Happens all the time.” (And JCO completely won me over. Because she had such a complete sense of self, such complete control of the audience.)

17. The last question was if JCO believe more in fate or free will, to which she responded, “You sound like one of the demonic characters in my stories.” Once the audience had quit laughing and she had us once again eating from the palm of her hand, she added, “Let us not underplay the role of chance in life…You have to have absorbed your life from models, mentors who exude an air of love, protectiveness, and authority. Those people will always be with you, and you will have them internalized with you forever…Now what if you’re an orphan? I don’t know what happens, but these things come together to form a complex human being.”

And that is how I fell in love with Joyce Carol Oates.

*All of the quotes are taken down as quickly as my little thumbs could type so please don’t quote me as 100% accurate. The English major within does her best, but she isn’t perfect.