About Gillian Marchenko

The world is full of people who seem like they have it all together. Gillian Marchenko speaks up for the rest of us. She is a Christian, wife, mother, writer, speaker, and advocate for individuals with special needs. She writes and speaks about parenting kids with Down syndrome, faith, depression, imperfection, and adoption. "Sun Shine Down," her memoir about her daughter Polly's birth and diagnosis of Down syndrome in the former Soviet Union will be published with T.S. Poetry Press by the end of 2013. Gillian’s work has appeared in Today’s Christian Woman, Gifted For Leadership, Connections Magazine, MomSense Magazine, EFCA TODAY, CHICAGO PARENT, Story Bleed, CHICAGO SPECIAL PARENT, Thriving Family, and Literary Mama. She speaks to Mothers of Preschool groups, helps coordinate her church’s special needs inclusive children Sunday school and respite, and teaches about inclusive Church with Joni and Friends Chicago. Check out Gillian’s website at www.gillianmarchenko.com or find her at www.facebook.com/GillianMarchenkoPage or on Twitter, @GillianMarchenk.

Concrete Tips on Book Writing: It’s Like Working a Puzzle

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Just how does one go about writing a book?

Have you ever had that thought?

I am a published author and most days, I still struggle with that question. There’s so much involved in writing a book: craft, connections, moxie, perseverance.

And then there’s this, too: writing is vulnerable. Edna St. Vincent Millay said “a person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down.”

But what else can we do? We must write. And sometimes our efforts turn into a book.

I am in the process of writing my second book, which has pretty much eclipsed everything else in my life. With my first book, I took years writing the whole manuscript before finding an agent and a publishing house. This time, my agent sold the book on proposal with a deadline. I was given eleven months to write and submit it. Yikes.

But how do you actually do it?

I’ve decided that, either way, whether you are on deadline or on your own agenda, writing a book is like doing a puzzle.

I write creative nonfiction. My puzzle pieces are anecdotes and stories from my life. I lurch around in the darkness of my writing cove, type words, peel back memories and scenes from the past, and try to find something salvageable to get down on paper. I try pieces in different places, and attempt to trust that the piece has a place, and that at some point the puzzle will be complete.

Yeah, but, can you answer the question?

Oh, right, I’m supposed to give you a few concrete tips on writing a book.

Let’s assume you are a writer. Here are skills you already possess: you read a lot, you write, you have taken classes or participated in a writing workshop that critiqued your work. Let’s assume you are ready to write a book, and you are looking for a few quick, concrete tips regarding the process.

OK, I can help with that.

-I prepare. I read a chapter from a book I love. I pray about my writing. I block common distractions (i.e. if the kids are home, it is off to the coffee shop I go). I look at my calendar on Google and plan writing time. It is as official as doctor appointments and school functions.

-I write. I can’t tell you how many people have talked to me about writing. “How much of the story do you have down?” I ask. “Oh, I haven’t started writing yet. It’s all up here.” (points to head). Yeah, no, that’s not going to work. I try to find several hours to write. I shoot for 1000 words or two hours editing. I spend time looking off into space, though, too.

-I realize that it takes a lot of work. It took me years to write the first draft of Sun Shine Down. And just so you know, nobody writes wonderful first drafts (if they do, I am going to avoid them and refuse to read their work on principle). Rewriting is key. I hired a professional editor, printed out her suggestions, sat down to the blank page, and re-typed the whole thing.

-I look for tools that will help. I purchased Scrivener, a word processing program specifically for writers. I can pop in and out of chapters easily and I love the cork board feature that helps me see the big picture of my book. I also found an app in Google Chrome based on the Pomodoro Technique. It blocks social media for 25 minutes and then gives me 5 minutes to check email or get up before returning to work. Keep your eye out for tips and tools that will help you and then go a step farther, and utilize them.

-I try to ignore negativity. Beware. Throughout the process you will assume you can’t do it. After, God willing, your book publishes, you still won’t believe you did it or that you could do it again. One of the best ways I know to ignore negativity is to keep writing. I also talk to other writers and attend a monthly writing group.

The second half of Millay’s quote is “If it is a good book nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book nothing can help him.”

So, here’s to good books! Here’s to puzzle pieces in place, and here’s to us in our writing pursuits!

Creation: The Writer’s Privilege and Calling

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Easter is over. Strands of pink and yellow plastic grass are strewn all over the living room. Painted eggs will be peeled and mashed into egg salad later today. The kids are shipped off to school bleary-eyed, nursing sugar hangovers. I look around at the disaster of a house I just cleaned for company, sigh, and sit down to write.

The blank page on my computer screen stares back at me, cursor blinking at the top. Write. It is time to write. But I am empty, hollowed out, barren. I am still winter, even though yesterday at church, everything around me screamed spring. I look out the window and notice signs of new life. The lilac tree has fresh buds. The grass is becoming crisp and green.

Easter is my favorite holiday. My heart pumps fast every year. On Resurrection Sunday I get caught up in the story of Jesus in spite of whatever else is happening in my life. I can be downhearted, exhausted, bored, or troubled. Easter morning is bigger than my emotions. Easter is always bigger than me. My knees can’t help but bend. As a person of faith, how can I not be moved by Christ’s sacrifice for me and his ability to conquer death?

But today my life is back to normal. I have my to-do list. I’ll match socks at the bottom of the laundry hamper. I’ll make myself something to eat, and take small bites as I wonder where the excitement went, and how it can leave so quickly. I’ll write because of deadlines. It is my work. It’s what I do.

The blank computer screen studies my face, and I think about my feeble attempts to create something from nothing. The book of Genesis comes to mind.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.  And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. -Genesis 1: 1-3

And God said… God used words to create the world. For writers, this profound truth is even more precious because we are word people. This is what we love and it is baffling and exhilarating that God used the same method. Creation brought order out of chaos through words.

But God doesn’t stop there.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. -John 1: 1-3

Jesus is the Word in the Gospel of John. And through his life, death, and resurrection, God continues to create. He creates new buds on barren trees in the spring. He creates a desire in a person’s heart. He makes us new creations through faith in his Son. And as his creation, we participate in the awesome privilege of proclaiming Jesus, both with words and in being the word to a world that a lot of times looks everywhere but to him.

And we get to sit down at the computer and play with words. We start with nothing and hope it turns in to something. We have all these words and thoughts and try to put them into some kind of order that will hopefully makes sense, and more importantly, bring glory to God.

It doesn’t always happen but when it does, its magic.

Easter. Through Jesus’ resurrection God makes all things new. He creates. He is always creating. Words are an essential part of how he does it. Doesn’t it just blow your mind that we are in the same business?

So, when you go to write and instead sit, look, start, stop, put words down, and erase, do this: Look outside your window for signs of creation. Look for new life because it is always there somewhere. See fresh buds on the trees as the world wakes up to warmer days and the promise of sun-kissed skin.

When you write, when you create, you participate in something bigger than you. You are emulating your creator, the one in whose image you were first created.

The one who started it all with words.

What a privilege.

What a calling.

I open the window nearest to me, and let the warm spring air in.

Dear Mom Who Wants to Write

mom who wants to write

I usually have stains on my shirt. I sweat a lot from picking kids up and down all day, and if I am talking to you in a public place with my children in tow, I am typically looking out of the corner of my eye to ensure they don’t run away.

I’ve been a mom for over thirteen years. It’s the one part of me that is constant. Whether I am grumpy or happy, chubby or thin, motivated or lazy, I’m always a mom.

About six years ago I admitted to a quiet desire to write. Not just “please excuse Evangeline from school on Tuesday because she had a doctor visit” write, but the other kind. The writer-possibly-author kind. The produce-readable-work kind.

With my husband’s support, I rearranged our family’s schedule. Instead of doing housework, making doctor appointments, and keeping the ship running smoothly at home, the things I used to do during the three short hours when my youngest was at preschool, I wrote. Our family adjusted. Sure, our house was messier but everyone pitched in more. Some days I ignored laundry. Some days I ignored my kids. Life went on, things got done, and I got to write.

When I typed on my trusty old laptop, I felt closer to my true self. I was still mom to Lainie, Zoya, Polly, and Evie, but I was also Gillian, the person who liked to examine life and craft sturdy sentences that hopefully, when put together, built a story.

Today, my first book is published and I am working on a second. I love my work, but this writer/mom business is still a challenge. Every day I reconcile writer and mom and try to make both parts add up. I’m a walking checkbook that needs a continual balance. Ethal Rohan once said, “Essentially, I have three children: two daughters aged ten and seven and my writing. I strive to do my best by all three.” Due to sickness, doctor appointments, homework, and soccer practice, writing doesn’t always happen for me. But I keep going. And I write.

If you are a mom who wants to write, here are a couple of thoughts that may help you today:

1) Start writing.

It is the best and most difficult advice. We are busy. Time and energy are hard to come by, and we have kids around who, frankly, aren’t too happy that we pay attention to our computers. Get up an hour before the kids. Ignore the dishes once they are down at night. Kate Hopper, an author and champion of mama writers, says you don’t have to write every day to be a writer. Finding time to write with children is tricky but even if you carve out one hour a week to sit down and put words together, you are on your way.

2) Find blogs about motherhood and writing.

Information is free and available when you have time to view it. Two blogs to check out are www.MotherhoodandWords.com and www.motherwritermentor.com.

3) Learn the craft.

If you want to be published you must write well. Writing muscles take time to grow. Pick up Kate Hopper’s book, Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers. Join a writing group at your local library. Take a class on writing. There are classes both online and in real life. I have a mama friend who took the online class called The Momoir Project. She loved it.

4) Don’t give up!

Writing with kids at home is a challenge. But women have done it with great success. J.K. Rowling has three children. Toni Morrison is mother to two. Mary Higgins Clark has raised five kids. I have a lot of friends who are juggling motherhood and getting words down on paper. If you have a desire to write, make it happen.

Writing makes me a better mom. And my work helps form my daughters, too. They are empowered by watching me pursue and achieve my goals. They see that I am happy. They understand they can have more than one dream in life, and with God’s help, they can do things relatively well most days.

So from one mom to another, I say go for it.

I’m cheering for you,

Gillian

Want to Write a Book? The Next Patch of Light

file6041243276582I was privileged to attend my former advanced memoir workshop a few weeks ago to share my publishing journey, both with my first memoir that came out in August of 2013, and the news about recently signing a book deal for a second memoir. As I talked through the six years it took to publish my first book, as my fellow writers threw questions at me left and right, “How did you find an agent?, what did you do to build a platform?, how do you plan to structure your current project?, how do you even go about writing a book?, a thought occurred to me.

If you want to write a book…If you really want to do this…

Step into the next patch of light.

That, my friends, is the best writing advice I have to date.

I’ll let you in on an author secret. We all started at the beginning. And I think most of us make this life up as we go along. Even New York Times best-selling authors, at one point, stared at the cursor on a blank page.

Still afraid?

Step into the next patch of light.

Are you already a writer, a person who has honed her craft and has literary muscles? Have you always been interested in memoir and look!, your uncle gave you a book on writing memoir for Christmas? Were you walking down the street when you stepped in a mud puddle, and while stopping to shake off the mud you happen to notice an ad on the flag pole in front of you for a writing class in your neighborhood?

Any of those instances may be your next patch of light.

You have to start somewhere, so look around and see where you stand. Stephen King said, “The scariest moment is always just before you start.”

If you hope to publish a book, than do what’s in front of you today. Don’t worry about a two-year plan complete with a detailed description of how you’ll construct your book while you also build your platform and research literary agents. (If you are naturally a person like that, email me, OK? I may need a little help.)

No, do what is in front of you right now. And when it’s time (and you’ll know it is time because you’ll itch for something else, or get bored, or curious), look ahead for the next little patch of light. Pay attention to your surroundings: follow authors on Twitter, look out for workshops, read blog posts for fun, pick up a book at your local independent book store on a Saturday afternoon that might apply to your writing journey. Any of these things could be your next patch of light. And before you know it, (and trust me, if you follow the patches of light, you will move in this direction and it is crazy and cool at the same time) you will be writing a book.

But for today, resolve yourself to take it one step at a time, and pay attention to the writer light in your life.

How My Agent Found Me

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My agent found me.

It’s true.

I didn’t believe it at first either.

And I am oh, so grateful. Her council, editorial skills, business savvy, and contacts make a huge difference in my budding career.

And I know… it doesn’t seem fair.

How exactly did she find me?

Through two chapters released to The Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2012. As a participant of the conference, I submitted part of my memoir for agents to review.

Sarah Joy Freese found my chapters, and contacted me for the full manuscript.

But why did she find me?

Because people I met along my writing journey told me to work hard.

And I need to be able to say this although it feels a little strange, like a pat on the back or something, but I realize now that I did work hard. I worked hard and long for her to find me.

If you want an agent to find you, here are four things you can do.

1) Write well.

Make sure your writing continues to improve. Read a lot. Write even more. Attend a class. Submit your work for critique. Spend time in the chair, churning out pages. If your writing isn’t at its best, even if an agent finds you, he probably will pass.

2) Build your platform.

Gone are the days of a writer hiding away in an upstairs attic penning the next great American novel. In the publishing world today, writers have to do more than write beautifully. They need to build a following. Want to learn more about this idea? Read Seth Godin’s book Tribes.

Warning: when you begin to work on a platform, you will feel ridiculous. When I started a Facebook author page, I joked with my friends about ‘fans’ liking the newest dirty diaper I changed at home. As a stay-at-home-mom with four children to wrangle, I didn’t think I was qualified to have a fan page, but I did have a goal: to publish a book. So I began.

Other platform ideas: blogging, speaking, writing e-books, the list can get really long and daunting. The important thing is to start, and to remember platform building as an important element to your future in publishing. It needs to grow with your writing skills. You need to be a package deal.

3) Have polished, edited chapters of your current work in progress ready.

Spend time on a couple of your favorite chapters in your work in progress. Make them strong. Hire or ask someone you trust to edit them. Rewrite them. Rewrite them again. Make sure that even if you don’t know every nuance of the book that you have a general idea of the story arc, so that your chapters fit when you pitch the idea to the agent.

My husband and I cobbled together funds so I could pay two freelance editors to work through drafts of my recently published memoir Sun Shine Down. After writing a third draft of the same book, I started to feel like I had something I could show someone with my head held high. Yes, it takes work, and time, but your best work is worth it, and it is your best chance to have an agent ask to see more.

4) Attend writers conferences.

Before attending conferences, I queried countless agents to no avail. I hardly got back a standard rejection email.

I can’t stress enough how helpful conferences were/are to my career. In 2012, I attended Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference, and the Festival of Faith and Writing, where I met my agent. Both were amazing experiences. I shook hands with people, passed out and retrieved business cards, and submitted my work for review and critique. While buoyed in my fervor for the written word, I soaked in lessons about the craft and business of writing.

I think every writer should attend as many conferences as they can.

Be encouraged.

If you want an agent to find you: do good work, put yourself out there, be ready at a moment’s notice to submit, and go where the writers, agents, and editors go.

If this stay-at-home-mom, queen of diapers and ruler over tantrums can do it, so can you. I’m rooting for you!

Now get to work. Your agent may be looking for you right now.

*Do you have an agent? How did that relationship come to be? Do tell.

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Want to Write a Memoir? Read These Books . . .

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Now that I published my memoir, I’ve received a few inquiries about how I accomplished my goal.

Good question.

The genre of memoir is tricky. I worked on Sun Shine Down for four years and then spent another two years writing the book proposal, finding an agent, and landing a publisher.

Here are a few questions I get about writing memoir.

“I have a story to tell, but how do I get started?”

“What is your advice about writing?”

“Any words of wisdom regarding the publishing world?”

I am by no means an expert, but here is my best and most basic advice for those who want to write memoir (this goes for breaking into the publishing world as well because if your book isn’t at its best, you won’t break in): 1) Read a lot 2) Write a lot and 3) Find a class or a group of people to read and critique your work.

In this post, I’d like to tackle my first piece of advice: read a lot. Here are three books every budding memoirist must read.

Situation and the story

In “The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative“, Vivian Gornick explains the art of writing personal narrative by reviewing key elements like the persona (or narrator) of the writer, her writing voice, and the importance of knowing who she is at the point of writing. The book is broken up into four parts: Intro, Personal Essay, Memoir, and Conclusion. Gornick draws examples from famous books and essays, explaining the situation and story of each, thus causing the reader to pause not only to appreciate beautiful words, but also to break down and understand what makes a memoir or essay sing .

“Every work of literature has both a situation and a story,” Gornick writes. “The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” (page 13)

My copy is covered in red notes and underlining. There is just so much good stuff in this book.

writing the memoir

If your not certain about the ins and outs of memoir, this book is for you. On the cover of Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art by Judith Barrington, it states the book is “A practical guide to the craft, the personal challenges, and the ethical dilemmas of writing your true stories.” My writing instructor at Story Studio Chicago, where I participated in an advanced memoir workshop for two years, uses this book with her beginners class. In my opinion, it is a book even the most seasoned writer can glean knowledge from. The table of contents includes chapters on finding form, dealing with the truth, writing about living people, and getting feedback on your work. It also has short writing exercises at the end of each chapter.

“Telling your truths — the difficult ones and the joyful ones and all the ones between — is a big part of what makes for good writing. It is also what brings you pleasure in the process of writing.” (page 74)

If you write memoir or want to write memoir, this book must be in your library.

Handling the truth

Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart just came out this year and I picked it up a couple of weeks ago. This book is not so much about the ‘how to’ of memoir, but more about the value of the genre of memoir. It is broken up into four parts: Part I: Definitions, Preliminaries, and Cautions, Part II: Raw Material, Part III: Get Moving, and Part IV: Fake Not and Other Last Words.

“If you want to write memoir, you need to set caterwauling narcissism to the side. You need to soften your stance. You need to work through the explosives — anger, aggrandizement, injustice, misfortune, despair, fumes — towards mercy. Real memoirists, literary memoirists, don’t justify behaviors, decisions, moods. They don’t ladder themselves up — high, high, high — so as to look down upon the rest of us. Real memoirists open themselves to self-discovery and, in the process, make themselves vulnerable not just to the world but also to themselves.” (Page 8)

See … you need to buy this book.

Attempting to write and publish a memoir is an arduous task. Start by writing, sharing your work, and reading these three books.

“Penetrating the familiar is by no means a given. On the contrary, it is hard, hard work.” (page 9)

Right on, Vivian.

I would add that it is worth it, if you are up to the task.

Seven No Nonsense Book Launch Tips for Broke Authors

Seven no nonsense book launch tips

 

Sun Shine DownI am launching a book.

My memoir, Sun Shine Down, published at the end of August with T. S. Poetry Press. Eeek!

As a broke, green as the grass in mid-July first time author, I tackled the daunting assignment of launching a book like any other able-minded individual in North America.

I googled ‘book launch.’

In .02 seconds, reputable results-driven marketing and publicity firms jumped into my line of vision. These people surely could launch my book into the stratosphere!

But after some number crunching and a realistic talk with my husband about where hiring a publicist falls in the needs of a family of six (braces, soccer, therapy, FOOD), I conceded. We could not hire help for Sun Shine Down.

These days, whether we sign with a big publisher, a small press, or self-publish, we bear much of the responsibility for launching our own books. And it’s hard work.

If you, too, are a broke new author, here are seven no-nonsense book-launching tips:

1) Plan ahead

If you wait to plan your book launch until your book is out, you’re toast. Plan ahead. Start six months before you are to publish. Research, and consider elements of a book launch you will utilize.

2) Launch your book online

Social media is a marketing ocean. You’ve got Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram … Where do you spend your time online? How can you introduce your book in those venues? With Amazon stomping on the book industry, it is a mistake not to market online.

3) Launch your book offline

Is a book party right for you? I’m hosting a party at a bar down the street from my house. I’m doing it on a Monday (because the venue is free then), providing appetizers, and using evites and Facebook events to publicize. Extra tip: Don’t call your gathering a book signing. Call it a book party. Who doesn’t love a good party?

4) Don’t spam people to death with your book

Not everyone is excited to hear about your book all day every day. Post about your book (especially on your Author Fan Page–don’t have one? Um, get going), but don’t post several times a day. It just makes you look full of yourself. The trick is fun, cool content, and looking like you’re not trying that hard even when you are.

4) Create a Facebook launch team

In an effort to build buzz about Sun Shine Down, I invited Facebook friends to join a super secret launch group. I offered perks for joining ( a free PDF advanced copy of the memoir, a thank you on the blog, access to a secret group, and interaction with the author) and requirements (help promote for five weeks, post about the book on your blog, etc.). My secret group has been the highlight of promotion so far. Why? Because relationships are being strengthened and we are having fun! It is also a great way to ensure Amazon reviews once the book is published (make it a requirement).  Read this post to see how I did it. 

5) Get help!

OK, I know that I sound like I am contradicting myself. But next time (God willing), I will hire someone or ask a friend to assist with some promotion. I’m talking about someone to help with a couple time consuming tasks and who is affordable (as opposed to a publicist who would do everything and is expensive). I’m talking a flat rate per month to run a blog tour or help with the launch group. I’d like not to have that pressure, and I am finding out with this book that there are virtual assistants and others who could fit this description. *Note: I LOVE publicists, so If I get to that point in my career when I can hire one, I probably will.

6) Create a new email address to send out official book launch news

I simply created a new Gmail account with the name of my book and merged it with my current email account so that when I send out press releases and other book emails, it looks official (instead of the author sending them, which she is :) ).

7) Set expectations low

This is my Eeyore personality coming out, but I suggest you set your expectations low. Then you’ll be pleasantly surprised when something remarkable happens. Not an Eeyore? More a Tigger? OK, then expect like crazy. We are all different. In my experience, though, the people I thought would help publicize and raise excitement about Sun Shine Down haven’t. I did have one or two wild cards, individuals I knew for a short time long ago who have become cheerleaders and promoters complete with pom- poms and cardboard signs.

Here’s to successful book launches, and to many more hours with our butts in chairs, getting books written so that we can, gasp, go through the nonsense of launching again and again!

Open Your Eyes, the Blinding Truth About Writing

Photo credit

Photo credit

Open Your Eyes

One time as a kid, I tried to walk home from the corner store with my eyes closed.

I knew the way. My brother and sister and I stopped in often at the tiny grocery store with floor to ceiling products and cold, cement floors, always desperately worried that Marsha, the mean cashier with a mustache, was working, and at the same time buoyed in our courage by the lure of fizz candy and green, curvy, ice cold bottles of Coca Cola.

I memorized every break in the sidewalk and each pebble from thousands of trips back and forth from our house to the market. It was a straight shot, no turns, no need to cross the street.

Confident I could find my way home using other senses, I closed my eyes. As a child I subscribed to the notion that if I couldn’t see, then no one else could see me either. Creeping forward, I gained confidence, enlightened by heightened noises and smells. I smelled pine. I heard cars zipping by on the street. My feet kicked broken up pieces of gravel on the sidewalk as I meandered.

Within a few steps, I smacked into a tree. Dubbed by confidence, I had veered off to the left. The impact wasn’t that severe because I had been going at a turtle’s pace. But my forehead stung and my pride was hurt. My eyes, now wide open, darted around for witnesses. I ran the half block home to my mother in tears.

The Blinding Truth

Most of us who write, or who want to write, will recognize this story. We’re at a party, or out to lunch with an acquaintance, and we mention the book we are working on.

“Oh, you’re writing a book? That’s great. I want to write a book some day.”

You nod, take a bite of your chicken sandwich on rye, and wonder if your conversation partner realizes you’re talking about actually writing a book, not taking in nine holes of golf on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

Here’s the blinding truth about writing: if you want to write, than you have to write.

Not only that, but you have to be willing to be humbled. You have to want to learn about craft, and building a platform, and countless drafts, endless revisions, fuzzy hours staring at a computer screen, keeping your butt on the chair in order to get the story down, and growing thick skin for rejections. Because rejections come, my friends. Oh, they come.

Earnest Hemingway said that we are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.

There is always more to learn about writing, and the best way I can figure out how to learn is by keeping my eyes open, and realizing that it is going to take work.

Gloria Steinem said that writing is the only thing that, when she does it, she doesn’t feel she should be doing something else. If that’s you, if that is how you feel, well then, write.

But do it with your eyes open …

The Memoir and the Robin

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I sit in the living room, my laptop in front of me, open, alive, waiting for my fingers to type.

But I don’t. I can’t seem to think of one true word, let alone one true sentence. Papa Hemingway would not be impressed.

Thud… Thud…

My eyes follow the thud to the window that looks out to our chipped blue porch and the Japanese maple in the front yard. Within a month, leaves will bud. Eventually a glorious rust-colored blanket from the tree will shelter the porch.

Thud.

A robin flies into the window. She backs up, bewildered, and returns to her perch on a bare branch of the Japanese maple.

“Oh, you poor bird. I understand. I’ve hit my head against my reflection more than once in my life.”

The robin seems to catch her breath, and she’s off again, flying towards the window, searching for someone in the smudge filled glass. Herself? A lover? What does she want, and why doesn’t she learn her lesson? There’s nothing there for her but a hard, cold surface that will cause her pain.

And still, she flies into the window. Again and again and again.

Thud… Thud … Thud …

I watch her as I sit on our comfy, worn leather couch with a hole in the right seat cushion, the buzz of the laptop the only noise–that, and the recurring thud of the bird.

On writing memoir

As a memoirist, this happens, this hitting my head against a hard surface, when I get too introspective with my work. I am the writer, and the narrator, and the main character, and sometimes my roles mingle to the point of self-obsession and confusion. My desire to be perceived well, and to reach my personal predestined truth in the story turns me into a robin, fixated on my reflection, attempting time and again to break into something bigger than me, but really only hitting my head against a hard surface.

Annie Dillard says that you have to take pains in a memoir not to hang on the reader’s arms, like a drunk, and say, “And then I did this and it was so interesting.”

Thud.

The robin has banged her head against our window for three days. I’ve tried to deter her by closing the curtains and opening the window a bit, but to no avail. She returns every few moments, unaware that if she just shifts her focus there is a whole world to fly into and discover.

If a memoirist’s goal is for people to esteem her, to like her, to want to be like her, it will show in the work. The writing will fall flat, come across as inauthentic, and showy.

No, the memoirist should write for discovery. According to Andre Gide, a French author and winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1947, one doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.

A good memoirist is open to her story’s agenda. She participates with the reader, and diminishes the importance of her role for the sake of the universal truth found in her words.

“On the outskirts of every agony sits some observant fellow who points,” says Virginia Woolf. I would add that every good memoir has a point outside the visceral domain of the writer starting out. Our job is to bring ourselves and our readers to that point. Instead of a writer playing tour guide, the memoirist should rather find herself on the journey in the words. Then she will be able to fly right and free for discovery, and most assuredly get herself and her readers somewhere she would not have found on her own.

Are You a Good Literary Citizen?

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Are you a good literary citizen?

I’ll never forget it. I was probably eight or nine years old, and my family had gotten up early to get a spot in the front for the Blossom Time Parade in a neighboring town.

This was a big deal. Every year, thousands of people from Southwest Michigan gathered, anticipating a show of marching bands, fire trucks, homecoming queens, and buckets of candy thrown out to kids scurrying in retrieval around the pavement like ants.

The year I recall was an extra-big, super duper deal, because “Samantha”–the youngest child from the quasi popular 1980 sitcom Gimme a Break!–was scheduled to appear.

Now, I wasn’t a big fan of Gimme a Break!, nor did I think Samantha was the best child-actor of my youth, but she was going to be there, in my small town parade, and I loved to act in school, and every time I thought about meeting a real life star, a firecracker lit and crackled in my gut. I pushed my way to the front of the crowd at the parade, armed with a glittery pink pen and my diary.

Samantha waved and smiled as she sat on top of a cherry red Corvette. And then it happened. The car paused in line, waiting for the parade to continue, and a swarm of preteen girls crowded around Samantha, holding out pictures and paper for her to sign. My legs took off, and before I knew it, I was there too, in the swarm, buzzing, waiting for my turn to ask for an autograph.

Once most of the girls got their autographs, the car started to move. Panicked, I held out my diary to Samantha as her handler winked at me and said, “Surely we have time for one more.”

My heartbeat skipped.

“No! We don’t have time for any more,” Samantha hissed, pushing my diary towards my chest. Her eyes met mine coldly. “I’m done.”

The driver switched from the brake to the gas. I watched Samantha creep forward in the parade, once again smiling and waving to her adoring fans.

Who knows what was going on with Samantha. Everyone has bad days. But I have to admit, I was one disappointed, disenchanted little girl.

I decided that if I were ever fortunate enough to do well at something I loved, I’d be sure to be kind.

Fast forward more years than I care to admit, and I’m pleased to announce that time and again, as a new author, I’ve encountered kindness and generosity in the literary world.

What is a good literary citizen?

This is my definition: a person who supports creativity, who esteems work, and helps others grow in their craft. It’s a person who buys books (and lots of them!) and networks on behalf of authors and writers she or he admires.

I think about Samantha when authors share their knowledge of writing and publishing with me. I think about Samantha when I witness someone farther down the publishing road give a nod and a hello to another starting out.

I hold out my diary and these kind souls take my glittery pen and jot me a note. “Congratulations! Keep going! Try this agent. Sure, I’ll review your work.” Or even this: “I can’t help you now, but all the best to you!”

I don’t take it for granted. People in the publishing world are busy. There is no reason why some should respond to my letters or emails with such goodwill, but they do. And I learn that sure, there are Samanthas in the world. But that’s okay. There are also authors and writers who do their best to help strong work rise to the surface for all to enjoy.

There are people who value being good literary citizens.

Not every author or writer can help. Not everyone will care to help. But of course, everyone can pass on a measure of goodwill as another pursues her dreams.

And we can do it with kindness for the sake of our literary world.

*In an effort to pay it forward in the literary world, I am doing a daily author interview and book giveaway (from writers who happen to be mothers and write about it) the week of May 6th, leading up to Mother’s Day. Drop by to hear from great authors such as Shauna Niequist, Jennifer Grant, Kate Hopper, Claire Bidwell Smith and one more (waiting on a confirmation :)). Find out more at www.gillianmarchenko.com.