Monica Holloway is the bestselling author of Cowboy & Wills, which shares the story of the golden retriever puppy that changed her autistic son’s life, and the critically acclaimed author of the memoir Driving With Dead People, a story about her dysfunctional and eccentric family. Described by Newsweek as “unforgettable,” christened by Glamour as “a classic,” and deemed “irresistible” by the Washington Post, Monica Holloway is a dynamic element to all things memoir. Her memoirs are deep, moving, and entertaining. She is one of our favorite writers!
Monica took time out of her busy schedule to share some tips about writing a memoir and give a sneak peek of what she’ll be teaching in her memoir workshop starting this Sunday, October 5th.
1. Why did you decide to write your first memoir and how did you get it published?
When I knew I wanted to write a book, the story of my childhood was the story I wanted to tell first. Period. There was no way I could write anything before Driving With Dead People (DWDP). It was practically bursting out of me.
To get it published, I made sure I attended plenty of workshops and classes taught by my favorite authors, and I read every book I could get my hands on. My first essay was published in “Mommy Wars,” and that opened up a few doors, thankfully. I attended a workshop at Sarah Lawrence the summer of 2005, and within a month of meeting the faculty and trips in and out of New York, I had DWDP sold. It was a fluke, really, and I was very fortunate.
2. How do you write about someone who has wronged you in a balanced way?
I always try to write the story from my own perspective at the age I was at the time the events took place. Therefore, in DWDP, I was able to remember my father as he was back when I was a child – before I understood everything so well.
In DWDP, it was important to me that the readers experience my life as I did, with information unfolding the way I had lived it. This enabled me to be more present in each moment instead of standing in judgment of what had happened to me.
Also, I think it’s imperative that you write with a great amount of compassion, and if this is difficult, there may be an editor, a friend or an instructor that can help you. The person you are writing about may not feel that you’ve written about them compassionately, but it’s important that you know. I don’t feel that there’s room for revenge in memoir writing. But the truth is the truth.
While I was writing “Cowboy & Wills,” my husband and I were in the middle of a horrible separation, and yet I needed to write the book. So I had to put away my “now” feelings about my husband, separate my present from my past, and write about my son, my husband and the way we were in my son’s early years. I could not let what was happening in my marriage poison what I was writing – even though I was really mad at him. So I told my editor to keep an eye on that, and I think we both did a good job.
Hopefully, the person that you’re having a difficult time writing about, is someone you have a bit of perspective on – in other words, there might be some distance between now and then. Time is not only a wonderful healer, but it gives us an incredibly helpful and important perspective.
3. What do you think the elements of a good memoir are?
The following was taught to me long ago, and, I think, still holds:
• Plot- your unique story
• Structure- how you choose to arrange events
• Description- details that appeal to the five senses
• Dialogue- a speaker’s words
• Characterization- showing what characters are like
• Point of view- the vantage point from which the story is told
• Voice- the writer’s unique personality
4. You’ve written three memoirs now. How do you know what time frame of your life to include in a memoir?
That’s a very good question, and I got anxious when I was writing DWDP that I was writing about a huge part of my life. How would I condense it? What was important to the reader and what could I leave out? Some of this was worked out with my editor at Simon & Schuster. When I first pitched the book, I’d only written two chapters, so I told the story to my publisher face-to-face, and they held me accountable to the story I’d pitched.
Sometimes an outline will help a person whittle down what’s most important to include. With “Cowboy & Wills” there’s a built in timeline and also with my new book, “There Goes Perfect,” there’s a timeline of six years. So that makes it MUCH easier. Talking through the book, writing key scenes, and sketching out chapters can be very helpful, too. Putting together a proposal is hugely beneficial (although not my favorite thing to do) because you must know the book and what each chapter will contain in order to complete it. So that’s a great way to figure out the shape or structure of the book.
I never write with a sequel in mind. In fact, my agent and I thought that the DWDP sequel would be my second book, and I started writing it. But Simon & Schuster heard my story about my son. Wills, and we ended up switching the books. So “Cowboy & Wills” was my second book instead.
Everyone is different, but I try to focus on exactly what’s in front of me. (And for me, that’s one book at a time.) For others, I know they work differently. I’m not sure that any way is the best way. Write what works best for you.
6. Did you have to exaggerate or enhance any real life events to make them story worthy?
Things in storytelling are exaggerated. Nobody wants to pick up my journal and read it; they’d be bored out of their minds. You have to describe and write out your stories. You have to recreate a place, person and conversation. None of us have perfect memory. These things have to be created from our memory. We owe it to ourselves and our readers to do the very best job we can in remembering.
I also found that research can help SO much. I went back to my hometown and sat in the basement of the library and copied articles off of microfiche. (Yes, in 2007, I was still dealing with microfiche.) But I found at through my research that most of my descriptions were spot on – like the opening of the book where I see the article about the dead little girl. She looked exactly as I’d remembered and that was a huge relief to me. BUT – I was nine when I saw that article, and I had written in the book that I was five years old. Big difference. I was sure I was younger, only I wasn’t. When I adjusted the entire book, moved it up by four years, SO much more made sense to me. No wonder I remembered so much, I was older. A nine-year-old would remember such things.
Also, get anyone and anything you can find to corroborate your story. It will pay off later. If someone else remembers it differently, it’s wonderful to have a back up (or two or three). And don’t EVER let someone else’s truth interfere with your own truth. It’s amazing how people in the exact same family can remember events differently. Three of us remember it one way, two of us remember it another way. Be your own truth – and never budge from that.
They’ll learn from each other as well as myself. They’ll learn what grabs their reader and what might be confusing. They will learn to trust their writing instincts, sharpen their skills (both writing and listening to learn), and hopefully, decide what it is that they want to work on the most. Which story, why, and how.)
8. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Write – always. Read – always. And always, always, always put your work in front of authors and instructors who can help you become better writers and who can also get you in touch with agents or editors.
And the way I did this was to take classes and workshops from my favorite authors. I also met so many wonderful writers in those classes who were students like me. Many of them are now published, and we definitely help each other out. We now have a community of writers, and you will, too!
I wasn’t published until I was forty-two. If you stick with it, you will do it.
Thank you Monica for such a stimulating interview, it is always an honor to have such a celebrated author give us some insight.
Don’t miss the opportunity to take her memoir workshop Memorable Memoir Bootcamp: Writing a Compelling Past that starts this Sunday, October 5 at 6 p.m.
If you are in search of an experienced and successful writer to help you reel in that dreaded second or third draft, Liza Palmer is your girl. Palmer has five bestselling novels under her belt and her sixth “Girl Before a Mirror,” will be out on January 5, 2015. Her first novel, “Conversations with the Fat Girl” was optioned by HBO and became an international bestseller its first week in publication, as well as hitting Number 1 on the Fiction Heatseekers List in the UK the week before the book debuted. Her fifth novel “Nowhere but Home” bestowed Palmer with the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction in 2013. Palmer also earned two Emmy nominations for writing for the first season of VH1′s Pop Up Video.
If anyone knows how to turn a rough draft into a polished finished draft, it is Liza. Lucky for us, she will be taking time out of her busy schedule to teach a Book Revision class this Sunday, September 21, where she will share her secret methods for how to plan for a painless and highly productive editing session. She will even give students individual feedback on their books in this small class session. We are very privileged to have Liza!
She took some time to share some novel writing and revision tips and what to expect on her upcoming class.
1. How much of your own experiences do you draw on when writing your novels?
I heard a great quote I always refer back to that said, “books aren’t us, they’re of us.” As much as we try to point to a certain experience or person in our lives while writing, it’s actually way deeper than that. Books, poems, screenplays and short stories usually know what they’re about before we do. We string together some plot and then right in the middle we realize. . .oh shit. THAT’S what this is about? Our subconscious has a way of burrowing into our books whether we like it or not.
2. You’ve written and published six novels and are working on your seventh. How are you able to finish so many books? What advice do you have for writers who are struggling to finish their first book?
Unfortunately (fortunately?) writing = sanity, and not writing. . . well. . . it’s not pretty. I’ve realized that I’m happiest, most balanced and calmest when I’m either hatching a story or writing. As I get older, I’ve learned to have several irons in the fire at once – and have come to find out that this is what yields the happiest, healthiest me. Not all mental/emotional eggs in one story basket, so to speak.
The best advice I ever got was from David Ebershoff. A page a day. That’s all. Keep a calendar where you can see it and mark a big X when you’ve written just one page that day. Chances are, you’ll write more than just the page. But some days, you’ll grind and crawl to that goal. And if you miss a day, you will have to look at that empty box on your calendar for that whole month. If you do this for just one full year you’ll have a workable first draft.
3. You seem to write a lot about that “imperfect heroine.” Do you think flaws are what make a character interesting?
A perfect character, to me, is boring. Flaws and layers, nooks and crannies are what make characters interesting. Give me Hamlet. Give me Amy Dunne. Give me Coriolanus. Give me Maria Wyeth. Give me Bridget Jones. It’s the layers that make these characters endlessly compelling and readable. Just like in life, I think we learn from our mistakes more than anything else. So a flaw is a spark. It gets things going. Of course all of this understanding seems to hiccup when we speak about ourselves and our own imperfections. We love layers and flaws in our characters, but what about our own? We have to learn to see the beauty in them.
4.Your novel “Conversations With the Fat Girl” was optioned by HBO. Why do you think that book is appealing for TV?
I think a lot of people can identify with that feeling of not fitting in, especially in one’s 20s. It’s about figuring out who you are, what you have to offer and the seemingly unending quest to be perfect/lovable.
The book focuses on a friendship that has run its course and I think everyone can identify with that, as well. Two friends who only have a shared history to talk about and the cruel realization that, as they grow older, they don’t really know who their friend is becoming and whether or not they would have chosen this person as they are now. Like fine china, their friendship is just trotted out at parties. . . barely functional anymore.
5. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers who want to get their novels published?
And don’t abandon your voice. Yes, every story has been told, all that you have to differentiate yourself is how you tell it. Don’t give up on yourself before you even start.
Why you? Why NOT you?
6. You are going to be teaching a class on the dreaded book revision. Can you give us a preview of what you plan to cover?
For me, the second draft is all about remembering why I was compelled to tell that story in the first place–why I started, the big picture. I’ve made it through the swamps of the first draft and now, I can tell you minutiae about every scene and character and how I finally broke that one plot thread. And then someone will ask, “What’s your book about?” and I’ll just. . . “huh?” (quietly sobbing, she slides down wall.)
The second draft is about excavation and connecting the dots. Pulling the plot threads taut and connecting them to that original big idea. This draft is about chipping away and revealing the next layer. I’ll show you how to make sure that each chapter builds and connects, that every beat links to the next.
We’ll make sure that your characters are unique. Do those two characters need to be morphed into just one? Did you fall in love with that secondary character and now find them more interesting than your hero? Can you tell the difference between your characters when they speak? Are all your characters there to serve the narrative or are they there because they’re one of your darlings?
The second draft is also where our writer kinks are illuminated. Do we need to go through and take out all the “justs?” Is everyone arching eyebrows? It is where we look for any repetition, logistical errors and major plot holes. The second draft is where the book becomes a symphony – all the movable parts finally coming together.
Thank you so much, Liza for such an informative interview! Don’t miss her class Book Revision: Writing a Seamless Second Draft this Sunday, September 21!
Tiphanie Yanique’s list of accomplishments is long and impressive. She won the 2011 BOCAS Prize for Caribbean Fiction, Boston Review Prize in Fiction, and an Academy of American Poet’s Prize. She has been listed by the Boston Globe as one of the sixteen cultural figures to watch out for and by the National Book Foundation as one of the 5 Under 35. Author of the Pushcart Prize winning short story collection “How to Escape from a Leper Colony” and picture book “I am the Virgin Islands,” Tiphanie’s first novel, “Land of Love and Drowning” was published this July and has been getting rave reviews.
When she is not teaching the MFA and Riggio Honors Program at the New York School, you can find Tiphanie and her family residing in her place of birth, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. She is traveling to Los Angeles from New York to teaching a Personal Novel class on Saturday, Sept. 27th at Writing Pad and will also be speaking at our From The Ordinary To The Extraordinary: Magical Realism panel on Thursday, September 25 where she will sharing her secret techniques on how to write stories so specific and whimsical, you feel transported to another time and place.
She took time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions about her life as a writer.
This was essential for being becoming a writer. My grandmother told stories and she had tons of books in the house. I was allowed to read anything I wanted that I could find on her shelves. Which means I read things that were often way too advanced for me in content and even reading level. But having to reach for understanding was a wonderful experience. I came to really love books that allowed for many readings…the kind of books that are multi-layered. I hope I am writing those kinds of books now! So my grandmother loved books and I loved my grandmother immensely. I wanted to be like her. Writing came, I suppose, from love of a person–my grandmother. She was one of the first people to tell me that I was very good at writing. And then she never stopped telling me. Her example started me off and then her belief in me carried me forward.
2) You’ve gotten a lot of attention for writing some of your stories from a male perspective. How would you suggest aspiring writers go about writing in the voice of their opposite gender?
Have I? I hope it’s good attention! I suppose I would encourage writers to write only what they want to understand. Never write from a perspective not organic to you just because you think you should. Do it only out of sincere and respectful curiosity. My main suggestion to writers when going into unfamiliar terrain is to go knowing that you are in danger, knowing that you can easily fuck it up–then hopefully you will give the work the time, effort and respect it needs. And hopefully then you will pull it off. I hope I did.
3) You’re well known for your fiction as well as poetry and personal essays. How does your mindset differ when you’re writing each, and which is your favorite medium?
I was first a poet. Though I am more of a fiction writer now I still try to hunt down beautiful language and a sublime line even when writing prose. In prose, we have the same tools of poetry–repetition, silence, etc. I try to be a poet no matter what genre I’m working in.
My undergrads are often too precious with the character that most resembles themselves. They protect themselves and thus the “self” character lacks humanity. My graduate students often have the opposite problem. The graduate students have committed to being serious writers and this means being brave. When using their own personal narratives in fiction they do the “brave” thing and write every single awful thing in about themselves. But then the characters are still not fully human. I encourage students to pull away from that kind of work and revisit it only when there’s enough distance to see the characters objectively…with both love and ruthlessness. Then you can liberate these people from your true life into a more true representation of humanity.
5) You have a family and a teaching position, how do you still find time to write? What is your writing practice like?
I don’t have a set practice, in the strict meaning of that term. My life is haphazard, so my “practice” is as well. This is not to say I’m undisciplined. I think I’m actually quite disciplined, but I’m not precious about my writing time or space. I write when I can and where I can. I don’t have a room of my own or a schedule of my own. So I write at 5am or 5pm. I write on the train. I write while my kids are napping. I also read a lot. All writers are supposed to say that, but in my case the reading is actually the most consistent part of my writing practice. I read much more than I actually write, but I see the reading as a kind of writing. Reading is an apprenticeship, it’s a way to study the craft that is more flexible than actually making words. I can read while I’m nursing my infant daughter, but actual writing would require more dexterity than I have!
6) A lot of your stories and your new novel are inspired by your experiences growing up in St. Thomas. Tell us why St. Thomas inspires your tales.
We all know that the Caribbean is one of the most beautiful spaces on earth. That’s why people vacation there. The Virgin Islands is exceptionally beautiful. That in itself is inspiring, but it can also lead a writer easily into cliche. While I use that natural beauty in my work, I try to use it in ways that challenge our understanding of that beauty.
Right now, what I find most interesting about the Virgin Islands is our political (and therefore social and therefore personal and therefore intimate) relationship to nationhood. Along with Puerto Rico (and also Guam and American Samoa in the Pacific), we are colonies of the United States. We find ourselves being both entirely American, but also being entirely of our Caribbean region. We are anomalies within our region (the Americans in the Caribbean) and within America (the Caribbeans in America).
Our beautiful islands sit in the Caribbean sea, but our bodies walk on US soil. This is strange and therefore might allow for a strange kind of beauty both evoked by the land and by our bodies. I’m interested in how that strange political space influences our most intimate interactions. Like how does the passport we carry lead us to the person we fall in love with?
7) What advice do you have for aspiring fiction writers?
Read and read and read some more. It is also writing.
Thank you so much for such an interesting interview, Tiphanie!
Catch her class Tales From the Home Front: Writing the Personal Novel on Saturday, September 27 and don’t miss her at the Magical Realism Panel on Thursday, September 25 at 8 p.m. along with award-winning writers Ben Loory (New Yorker) and Amelia Gray (McSweeney’s).
Abby Sher is a writer and performer living in Brooklyn. Her essays and articles have also appeared in Modern Love: Tales of Love and Obsession, Behind the Bedroom Door, The New York Times, The L.A. Times, Self, Jane, Elle, Elle UK, Marie Claire, Psychology Today, The Medium, xoJane, The Frisky, Largehearted Boy, HeeB, and Redbook. Her memoir, Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn’t Stop Praying was published by Scribner in October, 2009. It got a nod from Oprah and won ELLE Readers’ Prize, Chicago Tribune’s Best of 2009, and Moment Magazine’s Emerging Writers Award. Abby also wrote two young adult books, Kissing Snowflakes in 2007, and Breaking Free in 2014. She continues to perform at different theaters in New York (usually in a moustache), and is writing for TV and film.
We’re very privileged to host her as an instructor at the Pad starting late September. She will be teaching a 6 week online class on crafting the perfect personal essay starting Tuesday evening, September 30.
Abby took time out of her busy schedule to share some tips about publishing for the first time and what to expect in her upcoming class.
1. You have performed improv for Second City and ImprovOlympic and were also featured on NPR. Do you feel that a background in storytelling or improv is important in writing a riveting personal essay?
I think a background in improv is important in life, period. It helps me toss out ideas and take myself less seriously (hopefully). Even if it’s just playing some improv games or saying “Yes, and” more often. Getting to play onstage definitely changed my brain, in a good way. I definitely love crafting an essay on the page, but when I get on stage, I try to never look at anything written. I just know my beginning and my end points, and the moments in between that make me laugh. Whatever happens next is really a mystery.
2. What was your inspiration to write Breaking Free, your new book about survivors of sex-trafficking?
Honestly, I wanted to write something about anyone beside myself. I read a few survivors’ stories that blew me away, and Barron’s was looking for new topics for YA non-fiction, so I said what about trafficking survivors? Young adult non-fiction is a pretty untapped genre. So it was a real exploration – finding these incredible women, hoping they would trust me, and writing their stories in a way that young adults could really hear them. And feel not just the horrors that they had been through, but also the hope of their survival.
3. As a published memoirist for Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn’t Stop Praying, what is something you learned about publishing your experiences?
Well, it sure saves time when you’re making friends. You can just say, Yeah, I have issues. You can read about it in my book. Also, I think it’s helped me start from where I am, as opposed to rehashing the past. I already wrote it, so I can evolve from there. And it was fascinating to hear from complete strangers who’ve dealt with OCD or loss and see how we are so connected.
4. What are the most common rookie mistakes that you see new writers make?
Self-censorship! Please, please if there’s one thing I want all my students, friends, Romans and countrypeople to know it’s that the most freeing thing about writing is writing it all. Every nonsense thought, brain fart, half-dream. Write it all down. it will make sense later. The only way to push through to the real meat of a moment is to write and write and sometimes it looks like blah blah blah. I hope it does. It will become the most riveting piece if you can get to that raw blah.
5. Can you recommend any great personal essays that readers can use for inspiration?
A few of my favorites are:
“The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard
“The Empathy Exams” by Leslie Jamison
“Dentists without Borders” by David Sedaris
and then one on the art of personal essays that’s great: “Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story” by Phillip Lopate
6. What is something that most people don’t know about publishing articles or essays?
Hmmm, I don’t know what most people know or don’t know, but I guess one thing I didn’t know and am still learning is that it’s so important to read. That may sound ridiculous, but I always want to read and then save it for my reward at the end of the day and then fall asleep by the second paragraph. Not only is it so helpful to know what publications you want to write for and who’s saying something completely new, but it also teaches you so much about what kind of voice resonates for you.
7. What is the most valuable piece of wisdom that you wish an experienced journalist would have shared with you when you were first getting started?
There’s no right way to do this.
8. You will be teaching a 6 week online workshop on writing the personal essay from September 30 to November 4. What can we expect from your online personal essay class?
An amazing, fun, scary, wild dive into your psyche. A chance to dig into your brain, your heart, your guts and say something you’ve never said before. And at least one essay ready to be published. :)
Thank you so much for that informative interview, Abby! Catch her online class on Writing and Publishing the Personal Essay this September from the comfort of your computer!
By Cait Mylchreest
If you’re looking to craft concise, exciting, and grounded short stories, look no further than the incomparable Jim Gavin, a long-time SoCal resident and author of the new short story collection “Middle Men” (Simon & Schuster). His fiction has also appeared in a variety of well-known publications such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Zoetrope, Esquire, Slice, The Mississippi Review, and ZYZZYVA. Check out his 5-week class The Real Story: A Short Story Workshop beginning October 19th or his 1-day Short Story Workshop on October 5th.
We were lucky enough to sit down with Jim to find out more about his writing process and why he thinks short stories are so cool!
1.) When did you first know writing was your passion?
I wasn’t precocious as a reader or a writer. At some point in college I stumbled on a copy of The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. I took it down from a shelf because I liked the title and the cover. I didn’t know anything about Pynchon, but I stood there in the bookstore for about an hour, mesmerized by the way he captured the particular emptiness of a Sunday afternoon in Southern California. That’s when I started to pursue books on my own and my passion for reading led eventually to writing.
2.) What’s your writing process or routine like? How do you deal with writers’ block?
I wish I could say that I have a solid process and set routine, but it’s never worked like that for me. I write at weird hours, night and day, and I usually get the most work done when I’m short on time. Some weeks I’ll do more in an hour than I have in all the days combined. I don’t wait for inspiration. I sit down every day and play around with sentences, revising, trying to write a new sentence or two, but at the same time, if I’m not feeling it, I don’t force myself to write ten pages that I’m going to end up hating. A little every day is the best I can hope for.
3.) You were born right here in Southern California, so Los Angeles always plays a major role in your stories. What’s it like writing about and transforming your childhood home?
For better or worse one of my goals as a writer is to write about Southern California in such a way that all the locals I knew growing up would say, “Yeah, you got it.” I worked at a gas station for a long time and I spent many hours standing around the pumps with my fellow knuckleheads, telling stories about all the people we knew, and in some ways I’m always trying to capture that kind of voice. Los Angeles is a great place to be a writer and I feel lucky that I live here.
4.) What are some of your favorite books that have influenced your work?
Besides Pynchon, I tend to gravitate towards writers who make me laugh. Not ha ha laughs, but deep profound laughter about what it means to be human. I’m always reading Flannery O’Connor and James Joyce. I’m also inspired by a lot of great stuff that’s coming out right now. Writers like Rachel Kushner, Suzanne Rivecca, Sam Lipsyte, and Ben Fountain are doing amazing things and setting the bar very high.
5.) You just published your first short story collection Middle Men. Why do you feel drawn to short stories as opposed to novels?
There’s a particular chill that goes up my spine when I come to the end of a great short story. You sit down and a half hour later the world feels like it has spun off its axis; you see the world a little differently. Gabriel Garcia Marquez said that a novel can win by TKO, but a short story has to win by knockout. That gut punch is what will always draw me to short stories.
6.) What do you consider to be the most important element for a short story? Can you give us a preview of some of the things you will cover in your class?
Clarity. Clarity. Clarity. Over time I’ve found important this is paramount – if a reader is doing work on the first page, you’ve lost them. You want mystery, not confusion, and in class we will talk a lot about the importance of clarity and immediately establishing voice and authority. We will also talk about texture – writing sentences that appeal to the senses and make the reader see and feel the world you are creating.