The Rumpus Interview with Julie MacDonnell

Push to Publish 2015

The countdown has begun! As attendees anxiously await the 2015 Push to Publish conference to be held October 10 at Rosemont College, now is the time to start thinking about your writing and what questions you may want to ask at the conference. What do you want to gain from the conference? What is the most important question you want to ask?

Author, speed date participant, and panelist, Julie MacDonnell, was interviewed by Steve Almond from The Rumpus. The article features a Q&A session with Julie and talks about her experience as a writer and author. If you are interested in writing or teaching writing, check out the interview now by clicking here!

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National Revision Month

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I think I am making this up. I also think someone should make this a thing. If we can have National Novel month in which one writes a complete novel, why can’t there be a month devoted only to revisions?

What’s more, why not the month of March? Think about it. March is a fantastic month because it’s the month of in between. For east coasters like myself, it’s not yet spring and it’s not winter.  We are struggling in between the two seasons. Is there a better metaphor for the art of revisions?

I spent the last months churning  out about ten poems (in all different stages of revisions), four ten-minute plays, one full-length play, one thirty-minute play, and two short stories. Not to mention the two novels sitting around the apartment and the dozen or so creative nonfiction pieces I’ve written. The poor things are sitting there waiting.

That needs to stop.

Now.

That’s why I’m making March National Revision Month. I will be working on whatever my little hands grab (and keep in mind I’m open to suggestions). I will write nothing new this month (well, outside of blogs).

This month is all about revisions.

Today I will attempt to rewrite a short story which may turn into a short story cycle.

Tomorrow, I’ll let you know how it went.

Wacko Wednesdays: Positive Psychology

Writing Tips

Psi2As a continuation of my previous post on Happiness, I’ll talk a little bit about Positive Psychology (PP) and the lessons we can learn, as writers, from this emerging field (perhaps in a way you might not predict, though.)

In 1998, the American Psychological Association’s then-president, Martin Seligman, used the term “Positive Psychology” to describe a new trend in Psychology research: the study of how humans become and stay happy. Dr. Seligman was tired of mental illness being the sole purpose of Psychology research and practice; He wanted Psychology to study more of what makes and keeps people happy instead of only mending the sick. PP has been the trending topic in Psych since then. Graduate students are clamoring to study topics like resiliency, decision-making, sense of control, character strength and uplifting traits. Journals publish more and more studies about the effects of “learned optimism.” Books like Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert are topping New York Times’ bestseller lists.

Like with all emerging fields, PP has its critics. The biggest and strongest critique of PP is that the field isn’t regulated. Any person can stick the term “Positive Psychologist” on the end of their name and claim to know how to apply the concepts that certified scientists and counselors developed. This means that every “life coach” kook is all over the Web promoting themselves as a “PP Counselor,” and no law or national certification program is barring them from doing so.

Another critique that is of lesser strength but more relevant to us as writers is the type of personality PP seems to attract. Those kooks on the internet and late-night infomercials are the most slimy of the bunch, but from an outsider’s view it does seem that the PP people have drunk the kool-aid. PP people are very gung-ho and tend to be exuberant evangelists for the field. The majority of them are do-gooders at heart; they want people to be happy and they think they’ve found science that can help.

Do you know a person like that? A person who stresses the positive so adamantly that it becomes unbelievable or in the very least, annoying? Your answer to this question will probably have more to do with your own place on the cynical scale than with the PP-type you’re remembering, but nonetheless let’s take a look at that character more closely. This person isn’t a snake-oil salesman; they are what I call a Believer. For reasons they usually aren’t too familiar with themselves, Believers truly feel that their solution is the answer to many people’s problems. How does a first encounter with a person like this go? What are you thinking? What would by-standers think as they listened to your conversation?

One thing about people who are enthusiastic about life is that they are usually magnetic. They light up a room, they are always surrounded by a crowd. People naturally gravitate toward other people who are happy and seem in control. But what happens when you get close enough to see that they are just trying a tiny bit too hard to be legitimate? What if the consistency or substance isn’t there? How does that character keep up the charade? How do you see it? How, if there is truly no substance, do you as a reader discover it? Will it be in the Believer’s frayed pant leg or missing button? Will it be in the quick glance down she makes after every human encounter? Just like the emerging field of PP, every character must have cracks in the armor. Even the Truest-Happiest-Believer-of-All-Things-Positive has a ding in the shield. What is it? Does the critique of that person’s belief-system hold water? Could the character make a journey over time to mend the damage?

You need both positive and negative forces in opposing characters for your novel or work of fiction to be memorable. Chart which side, positive or negative, your character will fall on. No middle ground. You can make a sliding scale (using a common measurement tactic from Psychology), but you still must divide the scale into two halves. The scale can have two of any extremes (e.g. Grape Jelly Fan vs Strawberry Jelly Fan), but you need to put each of your characters on that spectrum.

If PP had its way with your characters, they would test them on a variety of scales to diagnose current states and predict future behaviors. PP would look at self-efficacy (which is like “agency” – the ability and belief that one can accomplish tasks and goals on their own), resiliency (the ability to bounce back from trauma) and perhaps even sense of humor and daily laughter rates. The science behind PP is the same as a lot of Personality, Developmental, and Behavioral Psychology, they are just choosing to measure different traits. As writers, we tend to go into the dark sides of characters; It’s almost easier to write drama than it is to write pleasantries. But having no happy characters, or people who are optimists that promote achievement and satisfaction in others, isn’t giving your novel the opportunity for some significant conflicts.

Michelle Wittle On Finding the Right Story

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

Okay, I have already discussed my fear of picking the wrong story for the Open Mic portion of the Push to Publish event. There is so much at stake here and I can’t afford to blow yet another opportunity. However, because of all that fear, I am stunning myself into finding a piece. Therefore, I starting thinking objectively about my body of work and I started thinking maybe I should think of it as just another submission to a magazine. So, here is what I think I am going to do with the Open Mic piece and I think that this theory can be applied to anyone looking to pick the right piece to send out to the writing community.

 

The first thing we all need to do is decide what makes us stand out from the other five hundred pieces of material flooding the inbox of the journal you want to be published in. For me, it is my voice. The way in which I see things and how I tell the reader what I see is what makes me stand out. So, for the Open Mic, I am looking for a piece that has my voice in it. I was first going to use my non-fiction Barbie one, but because I sent that out I felt that maybe I would be jinxing it. Then, I started looking over my writing folder. I wanted to bring in something I talked about in my blogs, so that narrowed my search down to three pieces. Although I have been asking everyone who emails me (including the people who want to sell me Viagra) what I should read, I think the best advice came from someone telling me to take the piece that is the most like me. We all know that I worry about picking a piece that is an overdone story and that fact had me really torn up. However, in the end I am leaning towards choosing a piece that while the main character did try to take her life, the story isn’t about that. It is about how her action caused a different unforeseen reaction in the person she loves the most. Which is basically something we all wrestle with. You know, we do this thing thinking this other thing will happen, but meanwhile something completely out of left field happens instead. So, I am happy with the piece I am thinking about picking and I hope the audience will like it as well.

 

Now, say you don’t have an Open Mic, but a magazine (or seven) that you want to try in get published in. How do you go about picking the right piece for them? Well, you still have to find the piece that has whatever you think is your gift in it. Once you have that piece, do your research. Find out the: who, what, where, and why of the magazine you are trying to get into. Make sure you follow the guidelines. There is nothing I hate more then someone who can’t follow a simple direction. If they only take submissions twice a year, then don’t send them something when they aren’t looking for submissions. Also, if they have a word count, you need to follow it. As far as I am concerned, you may have written the best story ever, but if you can’t follow rules then I don’t care.

 

If you pick your best piece and you follow all the rules and guidelines and you still get rejected, don’t take it too much to heart. If they are kind enough to tell you why the piece didn’t make it in, then really constructively look at that information. I think that sometimes people don’t play by the rules in order to give themselves an easy out. Kind of like saying, well they didn’t take my stuff because it was two pages over the limit, not because my piece was bad. Don’t set yourself up to fail. Do you research…look at what does get into the magazine and then make the decision if you think your piece would mesh well in that magazine. The writing world is a hard place, but if you are willing to take chances and work hard, you will get in.

Michelle Wittle On Good Word Combinations

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

Although I will admit that I do hate E.E.Cummings (yes, I even capitalize his name…that is how much I hate him), I will give him props for the way he manipulated language. In his poem, “In Just” he combined words like  “Mudilous” and “Puddlewonderful” to describe the world and what it looks like in the springtime. You won’t find these words in the dictionary, but to abstract their meaning, all you need to do is use your mind.

 

Recently I read the book, Dogrun by Arthur Nersesian. Many moons ago, I read another book by him. I don’t recall liking it or not liking it. I guess because it didn’t really leave a lasting impression on me, I never really sought out any more of his books. However, I was in the bookstore the other day (I know, me in a bookstore…how odd) and I saw this Dogrun. The back cover explains the book as one day a girl comes home and finds her boyfriend is dead watching TV. Sure, finding dead people may not be so uncommon, but the main character was only 29 and her boyfriend was in his thirties. Of course the book was set in New York in the East Village and I am so glad to report that this was not a chick lit book. There wasn’t a she gets published and lives happily ever after ending. The ending fit the book and I was happy that Nersesian stayed away from many cliché-ic subplots.

What I really admired about the book was the writing. The language and the metaphors used to be more specific. Like e.e. cummings (I am being nice now), Nersesian puts words together in a surprising refreshing way that really helps the reader get a feel for the action taking place. In one instance, Nersesian describes a busy signal as a “traffic jam”.

The book had many more wonder word choices, but of course, me being the lazy reader that I am, I didn’t highlight them. See, I do have this friend that I send my used books to and I didn’t want to highlight the book and mess it all up for her. Also, yes, I didn’t want to stop reading the book to go grab a highlighter.

 

I am going back to the bookstore to look for another one of his books. This time I will carry the highlighter over with me so I won’t miss out on the great nuggets of word combinations. I do suggest that you take yourself out and find this book as well. Read it and report back to me. Maybe we could make a list of all the cool phrases we find (sorry, that’s the eternal teacher in me talking).