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Incroyable: Richard Russo and Crew in Switzerland

Posted by nancyfreund11 on September 30, 2018 at 3:45 AM Comments comments (3)

I am just home from the most unexpected three-day experience in Switzerland – sixteen years of living in this country – I’ve never seen anything quite like it. A literary festival featuring American writers in Oron-la-Ville – not far from Savigny, a rural area where I take my dog to stay when I travel. We are now a couple of hours, depending on traffic, from Geneva. To be exact: L’Amerique a Oron, Festival de Litterature Americaine en Terres Vaudoises, featuring Richard Russo, Laura Kasischke, Michael Farris Smith, Jean Heglund, and Christian Kiefer. My mind is boggled that this thing just happened. And a ton of Francophones interested in American writers were all there, engaged, interested, buying books, asking astute questions through translators or their own English. I feel like I dreamed it.

Au contraire, mon frere! Thing was real.

I am wearing the same blue and white sweater I got at Target ten years ago and Banana Republic tank with the ruffled bit at the neck that fits nicely with this sweater, jeans and low-heeled blue boots intended to make my legs look longer because of the way they match my jeans, (as if...) I’m telling you all this because it’s preparatory for what I want to tell you, which is all about my literary hero Richard Russo being here for three days, and I am so very aware that I won’t be able to do it justice. But I at least want to deliver the FACT of it. The reality that this amazing, brilliant, generous person was here, along with three other outstanding writers (Laura K, sadly, couldn’t make it, due to illness) in a little teeny town in Switzerland, twenty minutes from my place – surreal, really – and I’m still wearing this outfit in which I gave him a hug good-bye earlier this afternoon, with promises to see him and his wife again SOON. As soon as possible, in any case. Barbara Russo is as wonderful as he is. And together they are as wonderful as they are individually. Someday I hope I’ll get to meet their daughters and sons-in-law who I can only imagine are all completely cool too. You never know! Stranger things have happened. I’m fifty-two years old, and already it’s just so MANY times I’ve found myself marveling at that fact: stranger things have indeed happened. And keep happening.

Sometimes the would-be writers’ life is just so astonishingly privileged, even set against our numerous set-backs. The set-backs fade into nothingness in the presence of certain great moments, and these three days were one such moment after the next. Hearing Rick Russo, Jean Heglund, Michael Farris Smith, and Christian Kiefer speak on "Being a Writer in Trump's America" and later, "Writing from My Surroundings" (if I translated that correctly) right here, practically in my neighborhood, was a wonder.

By the way, I call myself a would-be writer, and that IS how I see myself, even though I’m obviously an active writer, a REAL one, you might say, writing every single day, whether it’s poetry or essay or blog posts or Facebook introductions of important things in medicine or politics, edits, what-have-you. And I’ve got two novels published that have been shortlisted for awards (won stuff, even!) and received very gratifying reviews, and a cookbook that earned Amazon’s number one bestselling status in the world – in its category – for a nanosecond. Of course, a person better at PR would only mention the first part of the cookbook’s kudos, I recognize. Number One Bestseller. I do understand the benefit of being better at PR, but I come back to the 10-year-old Target sweater and repeat: I’m trying to deliver reality right now. (Anyway, it’s kind-of a cute sweater). But my point here is to say where ever you are on the spectrum of your own goals, there's always the reach, the striving, the failures and successes that dot the path. And the surprising experiences of encouragement that pave the more successful parts of that path are priceless. Richard Russo is the biggest golden brick on my personal yellow brick road. (Had to get at least one little Kansas reference in here). He's an excellent instructor as well as writer. If you're a writer and have any possible opportunity to work with him or learn from him, by all means, take it. His newest book, 'The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers, and Life' will no doubt deliver much of his wisdom in this regard. I will call my favorite bookseller Matt at Books Books Books and order it ASAP.

There are plenty of people who’ve heard me gush about Richard Russo’s fiction. I first read ‘Straight Man’ when I was a young mom and my dad recommended it to me. He had never recommended any fiction writer to me before, and none since. His whole life, other than his family and his education (and an incredible sideline as a magician) has been Business: Capital B. So a fiction recommendation was a big deal. I bring this up with him today and although he has no memory of it, it pleases him. We have copies of ‘Straight Man’ in his house, my house… everywhere I go. The joy of laughing out loud at the absurdity an author can elegantly deliver on the page is unequalled, and Richard Russo is the best. He turns a seemingly hopeless, nonsensical situation of business or academia or relationship into a joy to behold. Under his watchful eye, things seem to work out. Not just in his fiction, but memoir too. Even when they kinda don’t. Because, you know, human foibles.

This morning he described his mother taking him to Martha’s Vineyard when he was a little boy because she wanted to show her son that a place existed in the world where things were better, things were good, where happiness could thrive and develop and be sustained. (Unlike, he pointed out, the town where she grew up or the blue collar shut-down mill-town where she was raising him). Whether her message was 100% accurate or not (probably not, Rick noted) her point was stunning. As a mother myself, I want to think my boys will know I’ve tried, time and again, to show them I too believe the world can be beautiful. Maybe not specific to place. I’ve never been to Martha’s Vineyard – but I get around – and yet I can’t think of a unique place that would in some way prove this concept. Still, however it’s delivered, I think the lesson is vital. Joy – or at least contentment as one goes about one's business – can be sustained, and it’s well worth pursuing. I love how much Richard Russo values his mother’s effort to prove this to him. (Today I also learned how difficult it is for a Francophone to say Martha’s Vineyard in English. A brief but exquisite pleasure there, in Oron-la-ville). Anyway, I hope I’m also showing my boys examples of how and where this sense of sustainable contentment and fulfillment sits. Good work, good people, good books, goals, dreams. Stay open to the possibility of awesome surprise. Pack your bags full of that, and take yourself to Martha’s Vineyard or elsewhere.

Nobody’s Fool’ is probably my favorite Russo novel. It has been years since I read it, but many scenes – and certainly the characters – remain vibrant in my mind. The festival showed the 1994 film of the novel last night, and my friend Liz and I stayed to watch it. A kind of old-fashioned (very Swiss!) movie theatre with deep cushioned blue seats, carpeted walls where kids have petted their names into the nap like innocent graffiti, (looking at you Marie), and the room at the back appears to still have all the old reel-to-reel technology. Meeting Sully and Miss Beryl and Rub Squeers and Carl and Toby Roebuck on the big screen in this Swiss movie house was bizarre. Chilly evening, darkness descending outside in the town square with the now-empty authors’ tents set up and burgers on the grill (I ordered mine a point which is medium-rare, because here we determine how we like our meat, even burgers) and little kids on bikes and people drinking wine and talking about literature and real life and what-have-you by the fountain until the wee hours as those of us seeing the movie went in to the theatre. My car was parked next to the church right nearby. All lovely and surreal. Especially as the film was then introduced by the author himself, before he disappeared with the festival committee for fondue.

My parents had a remarkably successful marriage, but if there was EVER going to be a threat to it, it would have arrived in the form of Paul Newman. My mom was so into him, I think it must have been a case of Jane, Ron and Paul in our house. My dad decided to just accept it and painted her a poster of Paul Newman with his tee-shirt torn open and a pre-Photoshop “tattoo” added over his heart that said “Janie.” Swoon. She loved that so much she then had my dad make that poster into a coffee table, orange frame and legs, which is probably still in their house somewhere. She loved my dad’s sense of humor most, but his skill as an artist also served their marriage well. So what I’m trying to say here is I was raised to believe Paul Newman is a god. And I’m sure he is. But he wasn’t my Donald Sutherland from ‘Nobody’s Fool.’ MY Sully, as Rick wrote him, was someone else. I hadn’t seen the movie before, and again, it’s been YEARS since I read the book. But my commitment, my understanding of these characters in this novel is nearly visceral. As real as this three-quarter-length-sleeve sweater I keep banging on about. That’s not to denigrate Paul Newman (nor Bruce Willis who just couldn’t be MY Carl Roebuck, as awesome as he was in the role) or any of the other excellent cast members, but it’s to say the novel was as real as real can be. Even this many years later. And yet, it’s entirely fiction. Rick said this morning he prefers the fun of telling lies over writing memoir. Language note: lies = mensonges. Writing lies that stick, that remain in your heart and soul, clearer than truth, well, I don’t think we can find a translation for that.

Nonetheless! Russo’s memoir ‘Elsewhere’ is a beautiful view of his relationship with his mother and his wife and the development of his writing life. He says he stuck rigorously to the skeleton of truth, places and dates, when he wrote it, and added dialogue as necessary. He drew from the things his mother said over and over, throughout her life. Was this dialogue exact? Well, no. But was it true? Absolutely.

When I read ‘Elsewhere,’ I was in the early stages of losing my mother to Alzheimers and I felt encouraged and seen and connected, page by page, as I met Russo’s mother through his book. My mom was feisty, smart, frustrated and frustrating, judgmental and abundantly loving, quite vulnerable and incredibly strong. I saw those same characteristics through ‘Elsewhere’ in Rick’s mother. She had a short-term episode of cognitive decline, unlike the relentless progression of decline my mother had, but it still felt familiar and comforting to read it… and to see how selfless and supportive his whole family was when his mother was at her worst. When I then flew to Sirenland, the writers conference in Italy where I would first meet Richard Russo a couple of years ago, I was able to greet him and his wife at breakfast to say how much that book meant to me, how very pleased I was to be in his workshop, and how certain I was that his wife is a saint.

My friend Liz asked me a month or so ago where to start in the Russo oeuvre (conveniently French and English at the same time, there!) and I told her ‘Nobody’s Fool,’ followed of course by the follow-up, more recently, ‘Everybody’s Fool.’ But ‘Elsewhere’ would have really been a good choice… especially since she was about to meet the man in person. Starting with ‘Risk Pool,’ or his first novel ‘Mohawk’ would be equally good choices, or she might have begun with one of the short story collections, sampling his writing styles and characterizations like a marvelous degustation. He won the Pulitzer for ‘Empire Falls’ in 2002, so I’m sure she’ll make her way to that one soon enough. But there are so many wonderful Russo novels and places and characters to meet. When asked why he always centers his work in Upstate New York, he said of course those towns are variations of his home town of Gloversville (another hard word to say in French), but he does take his stories farther afield – into Europe even – and there will surely be a story in Switzerland eventually. But where ever they are, they ought to be viewed as universal. And I have to agree, that’s how I see his narrative arc every time, no matter where it’s set.

I mentioned that so far, I’ve published novels and a cookbook. My second novel, although aimed for adult readership, has earned its accolades in the Young Adult reader community. So inadvertently, I guess I am a writer of both Adult and Young Adult, in addition to non-fiction. In any case, as an author, I am what I am -- Nancy Freund. Sometimes people ask if they should use pseudonyms for writing different genres. The answer, usually, is no. If the emotional delivery an author presents is recognizable and consistent, regardless of whether you’re presenting Mystery or Thriller or Young Adult or Poetry or Romance or Literary… you are the same author. Richard Russo’s work exemplifies this truth wonderfully. You know that despite some rotten things (even tragic, awful things) that might happen in his stories, hope rises to the surface. People ultimately are salvageable. Their morals are challenged, but they eventually figure out how to get things right. Despite the odds. And the odds are certainly odd, and often hilarious, in his fiction.

Considering the extreme absurdity of our social and political culture in the U.S. today (and I say this very gently because if I don’t use the word “absurd” I would otherwise use words like tragic or heartbreaking or terrifying or divisive or dangerous), but considering today’s relentless absurdity, I can’t think of a better use of fiction, a better time to meet one’s most revered writer of humor-plus-substance than now. Driving from my house through Swiss fields full of cows and corn and bales of hay to meet Richard Russo in the back room of the Union Café, décor charmingly unchanged, I’d say, since 1984 if not longer, was a true blessing of this writer’s life. The Christine Blasey Ford/Kavanaugh hearing was happening as I drove there for the opening round-table event, classical music on the stereo, sun overhead. Fields in the foreground, mountains in the distance. Richard Russo and his wife, his charming French publisher and his writer colleagues, whose work I am now eager to discover, were there waiting -- with their individual versions of optimism and intellect for all.

Great big enormous thank you, Universe.

Great stuff straight from Robert Olen Butler

Posted by nancyfreund11 on July 6, 2018 at 1:35 PM Comments comments (1)

A week ago in Portugal, I attended Robert Olen Butler’s workshop at the 15th International Conference on the Short Story in English. (Google it. Truly remarkable thing, every two years... ok, wait – here). He sat at the head of a large table in a University of Lisbon classroom – terrible temperature control, as is the case with all classrooms everywhere in the world – and as soon as everybody started scribbling notes, he said don’t bother it’s all in his book. Which it is. I’ve read ‘From Where You Dream’– devoured it, really – and I can vouch, it’s all there. But being in the room, in the moment, is pretty powerful. So can you blame me? I took notes. And now, I’ll share! Also, if you’re tempted to get the book, DO IT.

Butler is a generous instructor. If he’s figured something out, about writing or the community of writers, he shares it. Also, I’ve witnessed his remarkable ability to gauge his crowd. He seems to just know who wants more attention, who wants less, who’s eager to participate but is shy, who’s about to hog a mic (and shouldn’t), and so on. I’m sure it’s this sensitivity, translated to the page, that has won his writing so many accolades including the Pulitzer. By the way, we learned that his full archive is to be housed at Yale’s Beinecke Library. Every scrap of writing he’s kept since childhood – 136 boxes now on their way to New Haven. Robert Olen Butler’s archives will be hanging out with notables like James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Langston Hughes. Point is, the man knows his stuff, and the world knows he knows it.

So here are some tips and talking points from that room in Portugal – his words and mine:

1) A workshop is an artificial experience of literature. Therefore, he doesn’t do peer critiques in his. In fact, he suggests that every writer have only 2-3 trusted readers for feedback, at most. They must be people who GET you, who read slowly, and who can dream the work with you. Not people who look to help you alter your craft. Note to self – I’m often exactly the wrong type of feedback provider. I see a wonky comma, I can’t help but help out. (Side note - check out Anne Lamott’s Ted Talk, esp from 3:23… where she says, “don’t get your help and goodness all over everybody…” 

2) The most important thing to understand as a writer is what Japanese film director, Kurosawa, says: To be an artist means never to avert your eyes... despite the very human impulse, of course, to flinch and turn away from difficult or disturbing things, the things that reside in the white-hot center of your SELF. Human beings are creatures of the body and of the moment. Moment by moment. An artist wants to make sense of chaos without relying on theory and abstraction but by returning to the pre-chaos of the body and the moment, which is emotion. It does not come from the mind. It comes from the place where you dream. Not FROM your dreams, but from the unconscious, the PLACE where you dream – hence the book title. Butler says the minute a student tells him, I’ve got an idea for a story, he says, no you don’t. No story, he contends, begins in the mind – as an idea. It begins in the body, in the dream state, in the white hot chaos. Note to self – it’s easy to think well, la-ti-da, lucky you writers inhabiting your white hot dream states and emerging with finished fiction. I’m too in my head to do that, I think. I’m in the white hot miasma and the head, at all times – both. But the fact is, the strongest stuff I’ve written – I’m 100% certain of this – is the stuff that just COMES. And I let it come. Is it chaos? Is it flow? I think it’s all of the above. Then it gets rewritten a bit – re-dreamed, per Butler, and made workable. But the fact is the more I embrace the chaos, the more my writing holds power. So a little freedom, a little less brainy-act… the more dream-state production, the better.

3) A note on the Short Story conference itself, because it’s a rare format. This is a place where the birds and the ornithologists flock together. So true! I found the experience of being with the actual writers and some of the world’s top researchers on the writers pretty remarkable. In some cases, one room’s audience was treated to a PhD paper on one writer, while that very writer was delivering her reading in a room nearby. Likewise, people I met at this conference four years ago in Vienna were quoted in people’s slides this year. It elevated the “poor cousin of literature,” the short story, to the VIP role in the family. Be aware that often the poor cousin turns out to be rich, rich, rich!

4) On the experience of reading, Butler says What SHOULD happen with literature is you should THRUM to it. But this class can add a few strings to your upper and lower registers so you can thrum to it more harmoniously. This explains why it’s so important to seek feedback only from genuinely slow, invested readers. The minute you begin reading through a question of “what am I going to say about this?” as in a workshop, is the minute you lose your ability to thrum to it. No one reading at speed is going to really dive in and connect with your words. They won’t make time for the experience of THRUM.

5) Many artists are aware of what they’re TRYING to do and then try to reverse engineer it. Butler contends that no great work of art has ever been reversed engineered. He adds that athletes operating on muscle memory, without thinking – when they are in the zone – are at their best. They start making mistakes when they start THINKING about what they’re doing. It’s the same with writing… or it can be.

6) Write every day. If you step outside the experience of the writing even for a day, you lose your connection to it, and you have to work hard to rebuild it. Prevention of such losses is important, and the most important thing is simply the practice of being in the writing every day.

7) In Graham Greene’s memoir ‘A Sort of Life,’ he said all good novelists have bad memories. What you remember comes out as journalism – as non-fiction – whereas what you’ve forgotten goes into a compost heap of experience that helps to grow story. If you have a bad memory, embrace it. If you have a good memory, tell it to get the hell out of the way. This one’s almost entirely bold, because I took it straight from my notes. I have a feeling my diligent note-taking has always been my method of compensating for a bad memory. Now I must try instead to embrace it. Three cheers for the compost heap!

8. Story is human yearning over time – even if the character is a cockroach or a robot or a dog… it’s all human. A goal is identified, and the character works to attain it, yearning, yearning as they go. With genre fiction – romance, for instance, or mystery – the goal is defined by the genre. Hook the hunky billionaire. Discover who committed the murder in the library with the lead pipe. With literary fiction, there’s no genre-defined goal, so it’s easier to get lost in a less obvious plot. But Butler contends that every story ultimately is about a character yearning for a self, an identity, his/her unique place in the universe. Also, he says the majority of student mistakes he sees in new writing is a lack of awareness of the temporal aspect of the narrative. Yearning thwarted or progressed OVER TIME. A question I never asked and still wish I could… is this quest for identity, this foundational aspect of human nature, a desire to define one’s place in the universe as seen and recognized by others? Is there a community aspect to it? Or is a quiet self-discovery sufficient? Further, what if one is publicly recognized for some identity that one doesn’t fully feel is justified… or is plain wrong? Is that crazy-making? Might that also be the stuff of literary fiction?

9) Don’t outline. That’s likely to draw you off. Instead, here’s how to brainstorm, how to revise, how to dreamstorm: Butler’s notecard method, taking ideas for possible scenes (the moment-to-moment sensual situation, your “of the body” stuff) is google-able, and worth looking at in more detail. Bottom line is he recommends only scribbling a few key words onto a notecard to trigger thoughts. You want to move your character free-associatively through possible scenes. All kinds of possible scenes! You’ll use many; you’ll toss many out. One notecard per scene, say 6-8 words to encapsulate the idea. Butler likes 3x5 cards. Then organize the cards, and only then, get writing. Only write the ONE SCENE from the ONE CARD at a time. Stick close to your compost heap and don’t over-think. You want to write from instinct. That’s why he calls it DREAM-storming and not BRAIN-storming. Same process for revision and further drafts.

10) One last thing – if you search YouTube, or just click this, you can find actual video of Butler writing a short story, start to finish, including departures from the text for research. It’s an FSU thing, in numerous individual posts. I saw it years ago, and thought it was great – both the fact that he did it, and the fact that it’s available.

Maybe the links that don't link can be entered like this:

Book, From Where You Dream:

 Anne Lamott's Ted Talk:

Robert Olen Butler writing a short story video:


Poetry is Conversation

Posted by nancyfreund11 on February 24, 2017 at 5:25 AM Comments comments (0)

Poetry, like music, is a conversation. I love a good, quiet one-on-one, whether it’s in the coat room near a busy party or a corridor outside a classroom, or sitting on a big slab of warm mountain rock after a hike, and all the others are settled in elsewhere with their open backpacks and bottles of water. Sometimes the most important things are said just outside the perimeter, the lovely periphery, and sometimes just in passing. Often, the important conversation is the one that follows the main event, and not necessarily with the person in the event’s spotlight. Art’s the same.

What do I mean about conversation and poetry? It’s the way one thing leads to another, unexpectedly. For example, at Necessary Fiction my friend Michelle Bailat-Jones picked up an intriguing photo by Margaret Fletcher Saine, wrote a short story in response, and then let me have a crack at a poem taking into account Margaret’s original photo and Michelle’s short story. That upswelling trio of muses at Necessary Fiction invites a wonderful leap, one stepping stone to the next, in the creative conversation. Filmmaker Richard Curtis said the other day “if you want to make something happen, you have to make things.” Putting words -- or images -- on a page and showing it to others makes something important indeed.

Two things happened this week. First, I wrote a fairly personal blog post about my recent poetry workshop in Key West with Billy Collins, a poet I have admired for years. The workshop was tough. One of the pieces I brought really didn’t work for most of the workshoppers. Discussing it in depth was an excellent, useful conversation to have, and I appreciated their generosity and attention. The post I wrote about the experience describes that poem’s original intention and the reason I don’t want to revise it a whole lot (if at all). The comments on the post brought new perspectives to the conversation – some surprising, some less so, but all gratifying. I continue to think that poem may reach out only to a select few readers, but for those few, it’s a strong piece just as it is. If no big name literary magazines would publish it this way, so be it. The conversations that might arise from that piece will rightly remain in the lovely peripheries.

But something else happened. Taking that stepping stone metaphor a step further (not pun intended, just overworked metaphor intended… ) new stepping stones have appeared in the journey with video game surrealism. Firstly, the aforementioned comments.  Secondly, a number of people have mentioned not the poem itself but the blog post as a new form of prose poetry, or a launch pad for a new form prose with haiku, perhaps. My good friend Michelle took it even further. She rearranged my words on the page in a new form, encouraging me to see it for the new poem that it now is. She calls it my work, I’d call it hers. Point is it’s the conversation itself that’s the beautiful thing. If you want to see where it comes from, click back a post or two. But even without doing that, read on. This is amazing in and of itself, and the gift of it.

I originally called this blog "hold hands, dive in" referring to my cover photo and philosophy of life -- both creative and real.  Writers and artists do their work in the dark, on their own, in the quiet times we carve out, away from our family and friends.  But also, some of the best work comes when we invite others in and connect.

Wishing you creative abundance like what’s come from this. Wishing you a big slab of sun-warmed mountain rock when you’re ready to sit down with someone.   More – wishing you deep, meaningful friendship with people who get you, take what you’re making, and make something more.


I Said

Nancy Freund/Michelle Bailat-Jones


I said, well, do you want to know what it is?

And I told them.

Told them about the Lufthansa lounge between flights.

This wasn’t very long ago.


You know the smorgasbord of finger

foods you take from the buffet—

all fabulous and appetizing but you

always end up with a weird blend on your little plate. So.


I was there and my back was killing me. How I was sitting.

There’s that piece of fucking fat free angel cake,

and I’m trying to stretch my back out.

I’m sitting all contortionist in this stupid chair,


trying not to call attention to myself,

but it is really agonizing.

Who would ever want angel-food cake to be fat free

unless they have an eating disorder like my mom.


Who I just hugged goodbye before I flew to LAX

and her hands are claws now, she’s shrinking

into herself, even though she’s finally eating more.

So it’s that angel cake, that stupid angel cake that’s going to make me sob,


If I start in this airport lounge, I’m never going to stop.

They’re even getting her to drink Ensure

if they give her the right straw, at least she hugged me,

she really hugged me; it seems a benefit of the dementia.


She’s been there one full week now.

I have to go home to my family, my own family,

I can’t stay here, I have to go.

I have my own family now half a world away.


I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again,

this woman, this tiny woman with those claws around my back

is not my mother, she’s my mom.

She was. She still is.


At least now she’s not concerned about her weight.

The decades’ long vegetarian is now eating beef stew,

albeit with her fingers, those sloppy,

filthy fingers I’m helping wash.


And she’s so fucking tiny now,

this woman whose thigh I used to hold,

whose every word I hung on all my life,

who I might have just hugged goodbye for a final time.


And I’m staring at this fucking square of gouda.

It’s this perfect one-inch block of orange cheese,

it’s now the thing that wants to make me cry.

This is what I told them.






The Literary Agent Gong Show

Posted by nancyfreund11 on February 19, 2017 at 9:00 AM Comments comments (1)

I’ve got thick skin! After thousands of rejections on my way to various publications, I’ve developed a pretty good ability to constructively receive criticism of all kinds. I’m no scaredy cat. Still, every time you step up to ask for feedback on your creative work, you have to suck in a deep breath and prepare.

Literary agents are inundated with submissions, so they have to go rapidly through their slush piles.  Very few published works find their agents or publishers through slush piles, of course, but the agents (or sub agents or sub-sub-subs still in college) really do want to find gold in the slush.  Still, there’s an obvious need for speed when they’re panning for that gold. The vast majority will be rejected within a few lines, if they even get opened. If a submission doesn’t follow formatting requests (print, when the agent only accepts email, for instance) or isn’t the right content for the agent (a Middle Grade book sent to an agent who specifically announces that he doesn’t read Middle Grade, for instance), or let’s say a submission letter begins “Dear Agent” or worse, the wrong agent’s name, or misspelled agent’s name, or the submission is broadcast-addressed to numerous agents…. Understandably, these are all deal-breakers.

Some subtleties of rejection are harder to identify, and the demystification is valuable. The Geneva Writers Group hosts an annual event aimed at doing just that. No scaredy cats allowed. In fact, some of the bravest writers I know are Geneva people.

I participated in this event for the first time today. Euphemistically called “Meet the Agents: Saved By the Bell” it’s like a literary gong show. Writers submit 5 copies of a novel’s first page. Four judges (agents and publishers from the US and UK) get printed copies, and the fifth copy is read aloud by a reader. It’s all anonymous.  No shame... only bravery. The judges ring a bell as soon as they’d reject the submission if they’d been reading it from the slush pile. Once all four gongs have rung, they explain why they rang when they did.

I got my first of four gongs at sentence number one. “I didn’t understand sentence one and didn’t want to read on.” It was a short, simple sentence, but it was dialogue, and it was oblique. There was no context, no book cover, no cover blurb, no New York Times Review, no friend-of-a-friend who said hey, check out this awesome writer. Of course she gonged it there. She’s got 600 submissions to skim in an hour!

Quick aside: I got home at 2am last night after celebrating a friend’s 50th birthday. If you’re going to drive an hour for a public gonging, by all means, stay up all night and have a banging headache.

Painful, but invaluable. I think four submissions made it fully through their reading, i.e. no gongs. What a pleasure it was to hear those. The remaining 40 or 50 got gonged – some immediately by one or more of the judges, others farther down the page.

Sometimes the deal-breakers were unique to an agent’s personal preference, (I hate epigrams, too many colors, I don’t agree with the presentation of Down ’s syndrome in this way… ) but often there was useful consistency, which I’ll try to share, including quotes when I can.

One more important aside: After the session, a friend asked me if I had submitted a piece and if so, was the feedback useful? I answered, I had, and it was. She asked if I’d revise accordingly. No, I said. This was a novel I wrote at nineteen, one that was agented by a major New York agency, in fact. Oh! She said, so it’s published. No – they never got it sold, and I’ve moved on. “Bigger fish to fry,” I said to her… ignoring all the reprimands about cliché, evidently. Maybe today I got a hint why publishers turned that book down way back when. And maybe not. Point is, today it got gonged, all four times within 11 lines, whereas when I was a young writer, newly out of the gate, this thing got me agented by one of the biggest players in the game.

So learn every lesson where you can, and don’t forget the reason for one rejection may not match another agent or publisher or reader’s perspective. You have to be willing to keep seeking the rejections. It’s not personal, even if your writing is, or maybe it is personal, but don’t take umbrage. Keep asking. Keep at it.

So with my work, sentence one, as I said, was confusing to one agent. The second judge objected to a particular slang word in dialogue, sentence two. I personally object to that word, as does my novel's protagonist. Her vile boss uses the word, revealing his character in an instant. But without any context, the agent confronts that word and bangs the rejection gong before "meeting" the protagonist or the author. The third agent said she didn’t feel that she was in safe hands with the writer. The fourth judge hit the gong right before another line in the voice of the vile boss, dropping an f-bomb. That agent had already announced that word’s a deal breaker for him, so I knew what was coming.

I will take on board those comments for my new work, and I am certain I’ll be a better writer as a result. And to the extent that it might be helpful for you, here’s some stuff that came up more often:

“I’m not buying the voice.” I don’t believe this person exists or would talk this way.

“Too much description.”

Info dump. It’s all “tell, tell, tell.” There’s too much exposition here. Show, don’t tell.


Grammatical mistakes. Misspellings.

Too “explainey.”

Misspellings in child’s dialogue don’t ring true.

No sense of place or character.

Confusion about time and place.

Not entertaining.

“Whoa. Now I’m lost. Now I’m bored.”

Rhythmically unexciting.

Too many questions posed one after another in the text. “It doesn’t tempt you, it puts you off.”

Grocery list details.

Clunky writing.

“Don’t serve dessert first or there’s no tension/drama, all because you’re concerned the reader needs to know everything.”

No suspense.

It’s only pretending to be a scene, it’s really exposition masquerading as “show.” For example, dialogue: “Hello, Ed, my best friend of 30 years. “

If there’s a mention of action, show the action.

It seems we’re starting in the wrong place. There’s an action moment, with a weapon and danger, but then there’s a major slowing down of the action for some explanation sneaking in. The action should roll forward unencumbered.

Clichés. (Many first page submitters got busted for clichés). Gravel crunching, warm sun, blood-curdling… they said if you can guess the next word that will follow, your phrase is clichéd. This one’s tricky though, because using a too-unique metaphor can turn them off too. A sun was compared to a yellow bowler hat resting on a mountain, which I thought was fabulous, but two of the agents objected to it. Another one seemed to like it. One person like the phrase “brittle sun.” One disliked all the sun, sky, green hills, clouds, and weather altogether. Another likes weather and nature, but only with a light (Nordic) touch. Anyway, they consistently warned against the use of clichés and too much description, period.

Do not insert jokes. If something funny enters a scene organically through the character, great, but don’t purposely wedge in something that doesn’t fit. If you’re not funny, don’t be funny.

Do not over-analyze, lest an action scene becomes undramatic.

Do not overwrite. “I feel that someone was hanging out with a thesaurus.”

“If you’re going to give me blood and dirt, you can’t then go into poetry.” That is, stick to the tone you’ve established. Again, action, action, action! (Remember, I’m adding, agents sell to publishers who sell to bookstores who have shelves categorized by genre. Naval gazing is not a known genre. Literary Fiction, even with plenty of action, is not easy to sell, especially when the writer’s unknown. If you write genre, you’ll be a much easier sell).

“I hate to be mean, but there’s nothing here to engage me.”

Beware adjective overkill.

Too much effort to be adorable here.

You’re really WRITING at me.

Less is more – unless it’s a medical text book. LOL

“This could do with a bit more detail. Give me a sense of character. Not the character’s name, like Sonia Biggins did blah blah blah,” but actual revelation of character…

Finally, my favorite… when one agent misunderstood something, wait, these are the parents, or the grandparents? Where did the grandparents go? They were in the first line, and then they’re gone. Another agent said no, it’s the grandparents all along, see? They all looked together at the piece, and untangled it. “Oh,” the first agent said. “Then I’m not reading it properly. And that’s your fault.”

Guess what -- she’s right!

I tweeted during the thing that it was harsh but fabulous. There are all kinds of reasons any of the writers might object to their gongs, but when does a writer get access like this to four generous industry leaders from two countries? I’m glad I threw my work into the mix. I know the comments on all of the pieces will improve whatever I write next. Even if I'll refuse to excise my warm yellow sun and a swear.


Then What the Hell's a Poem For?

Posted by nancyfreund11 on February 5, 2017 at 4:05 PM Comments comments (9)


Lufthansa Flight Home, Airport Lounge

Nancy Freund

Dried apricot, smoked Gouda

She let me wash her hands

Cabernet Sauvignon

When the water finally warmed,

she smiled and said ooh…

Big fat raisins


Hugged my mom good-bye

she held me tight

her shoulder blades

her ribs

her hands clasped round my back

Fat-free angel cake

Here’s a poem I wrote. I write poems when I’m feeling something with an inescapable intensity, and I just don’t know how to otherwise deal with it. I don’t do drugs. I’m not a runner. Not much for meditation. I’m a writer. This one was probably the most intense and inescapable and personal of any sets of a dozen lines I’ve ever written. I wrote it for myself because I needed to just get it out of me and put it somewhere.

And then I thought well, maybe this can help someone else, the way writing it down helped me, so I sent it to the one place I’d be so proud to have it printed that it would be worth it. Worth the possibility that I was betraying myself, abandoning my mother, maybe bringing shame to my family, in writing these words down in this little notebook I haul around. (Shame, abandonment, betrayal, per Dr. Christiane Northrup, the trifecta of terrible… right? So you get it? This magazine is worth it). The New Yorker. My friend Lucy had sent a poem to The New Yorker recently, a similarly difficult one to write and submit, I think, and she was moved and gratified by the editor’s kind-hearted rejection of it. Anyone who writes can tell you what encouragement a kind-hearted rejection is. So I took heart and I sent mine off.

I waited. I knew the likelihood was this poem would be rejected – not necessarily in a kind-hearted way – but I was still pleased I wrote it (I’d needed to write it), and pleased I’d sent it. When I reread it (past tense, reread, but also, interestingly present tense) it puts me there in that moment that I wrote it, and it keeps it for me, uncorrupted, so I can move myself forward. That’s what writing poetry is for me, most of the time, finding a way to move forward. Reading poems, my own and other people’s, does that for me too.

That was July. Right before my mother’s 76th birthday. Months then went by and I found myself in Florida for the Key West Literary Seminar and five-day writers’ workshop that followed. The Seminar was totally NOT my normal writer thing. The theme was “Revealing Power: the Literature of Politics.” Boy, was there a lot about the connection between courage and power. Without courage, without a sort-of sense of screw-it-I’m-doing-it, there is nothing else. The keynote speech was by Pulitzer-winning biographer Robert Caro on Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to push forward JFK’s civil rights movement, despite it being a loser’s game. Johnson supposedly said to his naysayers, to hell with it, I’m pursuing this, otherwise, what the hells’ the presidency for?

LBJ was president when I was born one icy January night in New York City, when no taxi wanted to pick up my mother, swaddled in all kinds of coats and bedding after her water broke and I was trying to emerge. I grew up knowing that night was during LBJ’s term, but from Robert Caro’s speech in Key West, I learned more about LBJ than I’d ever known before. I took note. What the hell’s the presidency for?

Following the seminar, my workshop was with Billy Collins, prior two-time U.S. Poet Laureate – a poet I’ve admired for years. I first knew his work through Patty Digh and her blog “37 Days.” If you’ve never read her, do. If you’ve never read her gush about Billy Collins, do. You’ll have an inkling about how filled up with love for the universe I was when I was accepted into this workshop. I love a lot of different kinds of poetry, but the simplicity, the straight-shooting-ness, the kind-heartedness of Billy Collins’ verses really rank. And I knew I’d learn a lot from him about what works and what doesn’t with poetry. I’ve taken many workshops with many different poets. When I first was accepted into Creative Writing at UCLA a hundred years ago, it was through poetry. The first online course or “mooc” I did a few years ago was UPenn’s Modern Poetry course with Al Filreis. It was excellent. I’m one of the little minority of freaks in this world who take this stuff pretty seriously. Nonetheless, for me, the real deal with poetry has always been elusive.

I love Dorianne Laux and Gertrude Stein and Maya Angelou (though I just learned no, no, we scorn those who revere her… ) and Eminem and Naomi Shihab Nye and e.e. cummings and Ezra Pound and NWA. The Sugarhill Gang. Pink Floyd. Sharon Olds, of course. Maurice Sagoff and Steve Scafidi, Ginsberg and Bukowski, Shel Silverstein, and Dylan. Yes, that would be Dylan of the Bob variety. I’m not ashamed to say that. And screw it, I fucking love Maya Angelou, that poem, “And Still I Rise,” come on! Like with all art (and wine?) I like what I like – but I’m no judge of readership. So yeah, I sent my poem to The New Yorker, knowing if they took it, I would not know why, and if they rejected it, I would not know why – except, of course, you know – odds. All I ever fully know with writing is what gets me in the gut – and in that, sure, I can tell you why.

My friend Liz is one of the finest poets I know, and she loves Billy Collins. I asked her what work to bring to the workshop, and she said bring your best. So I did. One of them, I’d decided, is those lines above. The night before I was set to read it to my new associates and our guru, The New Yorker turned it down. Form rejection – no kindness. I was eager to learn why.

In the morning, boy, I learned it. The reasons were hard to hear, yet no doubt true. If you read those lines above and they did nothing for you, you are not alone. Or if you read the lines above and thought weird, awkward, it should have been like THIS or THAT or SOMETHING ELSE, you’re not alone. I knew it even then, that the feedback was on target. Invaluable and clear. Billy Collins said cryptically at the end of the group shredding of my poem, “well, you could tinker with it if you like” (implying don’t bother) “or you could scrap it and write something else,” implying probably a better idea, if you must do something with this… though really, what’s the point… but for ME, there really is a point, and so that’s what I’m doing now. I’m writing something else.

And I’m putting those lines up there to start because I accept the fact that this isn’t publishable elsewhere, so I might as well launch this little boat myself online. Because it matters. Even small sets of lines that don’t seem to come together actually can float. I am certain of this.

Our workshop began with a lecture on poetry – it has to follow form and can’t just be self-expression. Also, a poem doesn’t end when the poet ends it, but when the reader quits reading. The poet’s goal is to make sure the reader doesn’t call it quits before the poet meant to. Also, no deal breakers in your poem, like a mention of a Greek or Roman God or Mom or Dad or Dad’s Hammer or Mom’s Apron or anything sentimental. If that’s in there, your poem’s toast. Also, there should be an intimacy between the poet-persona and the reader. Just the two of you. Don’t crowd the poem with a bunch of other characters messing with that intimacy. Uh-oh… I’ve been known to invite a crowd, I’ll confess. My second published poem in The Istanbul Review was about a literary orgy. This stuff’s fun! But no, oops. Sorry, no, it’s not. It’s damaging to intimacy. The reader needs to know the writer’s speaking just to him or her, that the poet’s saying “love me.” I took a lot of notes. I drew hearts around the “love me.” I was learning loads!

Then we moved to mini-introductions. We were to say what we wished to gain from the time we’d spend together. Not where we were from or where we’d studied or who’d published us or any posturing stuff, though plenty of us snuck those details in, I noted. My wish was to figure out the filters… how much context to layer in for clarity and how much to leave out. I think that’s the thing that defines the elusivity I mentioned. Apparently elusivity is not a word, by the way. Whatever – it is now! I want to create an artful blend of elusivity and clarity to bring a gut check to my reader, if the words work that way for them. And if they don’t, so be it. Already, I suspected perhaps I’m not a poet. I’m not a Billy Collins style poet.

Once the introductions were complete and wishes wished, we were told okay, read your poem, just dive in, let it fly. No chaperoning. So when I read mine – and also, you’ll note, when I put it on the page here – I didn’t add a line of explanation before its launch.

Pretty unanimously, they didn’t get the lines above. Where is this? She’s having lunch? What the hell kind of lunch, this is weird, blending foods with this emotional stuff, where’s the chicken? Where’s the beef? Why this specific wine? The one line about “she let me wash her hands” is the only part that seems to be a poem, that’s where your poem is, the word mom is a deal-breaker, it’s overly sentimental, if you have to write a poem about your mother, use mother, never mom. Also, your tone should be consistent, your tone is your contract with your reader, and you’ve made no contract here. And your line breaks make no sense. Without structure, there’s no poem. It doesn’t have to be a villanelle or a sonnet or rhyming iambs, but it’s lacking form. Also, why the cheese? All these foods are weird and big fat raisins. Looks like you’re expressing something here… (see my early note… self-expression, knell of poem death), and finally… the summation you could tinker if you like.

I said well, do you guys want to know what it is? Maybe you can help me re-title it if that alone might help. And I told them. Lufthansa lounge between flights, not very long ago. You know the smorgasbord of finger foods you take from the buffet, all fabulous and appetizing but you always end up with a weird blend on your little plate, and I was there and my back was killing me (I’m just adding this now, I didn’t tell them this) but it was, it was absolutely killing me, and I was sitting there in my Lulu Lemon trousers that kind of look ok for business class long-haul travel, and there’s that piece of fucking fat free angel cake, and I’m trying to stretch my back out, how I’m sitting all contortionist in this stupid chair, trying not to call attention to myself, but it is really agonizing, and who would ever want angel-food cake to be fat free unless they have an eating disorder like my mom, who I just hugged goodbye before I flew to LAX and her hands are claws now, she’s shrinking into herself, even though she’s finally eating more, it’s that angel cake, the stupid angel cake that’s going to make me sob, and if I start in this airport lounge, I’m never going to stop. They’re even getting her to drink Ensure if they give her the right straw, at least she hugged me, she really hugged me, and it seems a benefit of the dementia – she’s been there one full week now and I have to go home to my family, my own family, I can’t stay here, I have to go, I have my own family now half a world away, and I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again, I don’t know what’s coming next, this woman, this tiny woman with those claws around my back is not my mother, she’s my mom. She was. She still is. At least now she’s not concerned about her weight. The decades’ long vegetarian is now eating beef stew, albeit with her fingers, those sloppy, filthy fingers I’m helping wash, and she’s so fucking tiny now, this woman whose thigh I used to hold, whose every word I hung on all my life, who I might have just hugged goodbye for a final time. And I’m staring at this fucking square of Gouda and it’s this perfect one-inch block of orange cheese that’s now the thing that wants to make me cry. And Billy Collins said, where is that? Your mother? And I said Santa Barbara. And he said, no, where is it in the poem, the eating disorder?

And I said, I see your point. It isn’t there.

But what I need to say, the reason I’m writing all this now, is those lines got me breathing deeply in that lounge instead of sobbing, and they got me on the plane and through all those many miles and they got me looking forward to that conference in Florida and back to my parents’ house again a few months after that, and they do that for me now. One hour ago, I just booked my next long-haul on Lufthansa and I think maybe THIS is why I’m finally able to write this “something” now. My highest hope for when I go is she’ll still be there and she’ll light up when she sees me. And when I write a poem, whether we can call it that or not, it’ll express this sort of thing for me. And if it might deliver some of this to someone else somehow, well, that would be beautiful and good and worth its publication on paper or just right here, this is every bit as valuable, this small delivery right here, and I truly hope it might. Because otherwise, what the hell’s a poem for?

Check out Maya Angelou's "And Still I Rise"

Dreams, goals, and saving small lives

Posted by nancyfreund11 on December 31, 2016 at 10:10 AM Comments comments (2)

Last day of 2016 – time to throw in the towel. According to Goodreads, I’m four books shy of my reading goal, and although I’m actually in the middle of five books, I’m not going to rush to finish any of them. Having been whacked over the head way too many times recently by the word CONTENT, my New Year’s Resolution is now to avoid consuming content. Sorry Goodreads. It’s for good reason, at least, that I’m revising rather than accomplishing this year’s goal.

I’m dip-reading Tim Ferriss’ ‘Tools of Titans’ – an awesome book based on his podcast interviews with some really fascinating people. Lesson one: Know the difference between goals and dreams, and act accordingly. So yeah, I had a Goodreads goal of reading 52 books this year, but when I start picking up little shorties because they’ll give me the check-mark, NOT because they’ll deliver any kind of valuable literary experience, or worse, I’ll rush a read rather than actually slow down, stay reflective, and learn a thing or two, that’s evidence that the goal needs revising. A goal, ultimately, should serve the dream that inspired it. Note to self: do not lose track of the dream by chasing goals gone awry.

Another note to self: keep intrigued. Yes, it would be better to say stay intrigued. Remain intrigued. But rhyming’s good for memory. Keep intrigued.

I’m always intrigued by what books people recommend (or give!) to each other. Yesterday I had an unexpected introduction to a 23-year-old “kid” and his nearly equally young boss. Friends as well as colleagues, they’re in digital benchmarking, which I needed defined. (Essentially stat-gathering, for big corporate clients, I’d say. Sophisticated stuff – no doubt exceedingly useful in planning marketing). These guys were both smart, articulate, interesting ivy-leaguers working in New York. They really care about the work they do and the industries they serve (and are helping to shape, I’d add – though they did not specifically say this). They were both really down-to-earth, fun, fascinating guys. So the books – the boss is currently reading ‘Revenge of Analog’ by David Sax, a book confirming the livelihood of the “real.” Bricks-and-mortar stores, stationery, film photography, records, books in print. It’s sort of gratifying and confirming to see that Amazon is sold out of the hard-back of this book, in fact. (I push aside my cynicism that whispers “spin” as I point out this lovely irony). Fact is, I use a laptop, but I own a vintage typewriter and I keep an old school red-and-black ink ribbon in it. I taught in an old school. I like paper thank you’s. My brother’s got all the record albums we had growing up and the equipment to play them. David Sax is singing to my choir.

The boss had given the kid Josh Bernoff’s ‘Writing Without Bullshit’ as a gift. I’m always intrigued by writers’ guides, especially when they’re for non-writers. Every English major is assured that there will be jobs for the taking in big business because regular people can’t write. Those who can are worth gold in the workplace, we’re told. You will not be limited to a career as a writer or teacher with this degree – you’ll be CEO. I believe this may be true – in some cases – but more likely the CEO will be a smart kid with a life-long interest in business who learns to write on an as-needed basis, and books like ‘Writing Without Bullshit’ serve the need nicely.

Personal aside: I started my academic life as a Psycholinguistics major with hopes of discovering how words fit together to make meaning, only to learn Psycholinguistics was more about how sounds fit together to make words. One semester mapping diagrams of the tongue, bilabial stops and plosives and such, and I’d had enough. Obviously, the English major, emphasis in Creative Writing, was calling my name. I’ve never had a day of writer’s block in my life. There is ALWAYS another aside to explore. Not that those asides will hone your narrative or get you well published. But if anyone wants to publish a book called ‘Writing with More Bullshit,’ I’m your gal.

Back to the point. ‘Writing without Bullshit’ begins with the sad fact that the average reader spends no more than 36 seconds on the average digital news story and the comprehension tests out with only 37% of readers able to answer a question about a detail at the end of the article – a stat only a hair better than guessing. On-screen reading impairs concentration. And without good comprehension, good engagement with the material, your writing is perceived as bullshit. I mean, duh.

When your readers are quick-consuming content as opposed to actually reading your writing, they are not reflective, they are not analytical, they are not thinking deeply about your words and how they go together to make meaning. Never mind your beautiful rhythms. Forget your mind-blowing plosives. Forget the important stuff you’re actually trying to say.

No wonder people in business and the blogosphere and even traditional big-five publishing will write their stuff and throw it out there seemingly unedited. No wonder the world thinks so much writing is pointless. (A better word than bullshit, though one grabs your attention better than the other, holds on, and sells books. Which in itself, actually is bullshit).

So what’s the answer? You know that cute story about the father and son walking on the beach full of starfish drying in the sun, and the boy bends down and picks one up, throws it in the sea to save its life, and the dad sighs and says, there are too many, son, you’ll never make a difference, and the kid says, well, I made a difference to that one…?

Yeah, write on, my friend. Consume content as you must, and love literature when you can. On the page made of paper, on screen, fast or slow, retain what you will. Hear the rhythms in your head as you read. Pop your p’s when you encounter those plosives. Journey forth. Save one small star-shaped word at a time as you go.




Distance, Disorder, Chaos, Connection and Gifts

Posted by nancyfreund11 on November 26, 2016 at 11:25 AM Comments comments (0)

Turkey Day. No turkey for me, but huge, humongous gratitude. First of all, I married my guy on Thanksgiving Day, 25 years ago, and that’s the utmost. He’s on his way home this weekend, and I’m grateful that he’ll be here, and grateful that we have figured out a way to make the distance work when there’s distance. Everybody has distance of one type or another, from their loved ones. Maybe yours is miles, or it’s politics, or it’s 80’s versus 70’s music, or it’s how you raise your kids or it’s religion, or maybe it’s “sit-tight, this-shit-will-pass” versus “arm-yourself, man, and-get-in-the-fray.” My German friend says her husband wants her hair held back in a ponytail because he can’t abide disorder. I sense that left to her own devices, she might leave it loose. (Let me make a little addition here – I could equally call her my German-Greek-Swiss-Spanish friend from Miami. See what I mean – we are all a melange, we are all chaos, deep down, however we wear our hair, and I LOVE this). But whatever divides you from your important people, issues large and small, may you find a way to reconnect easily and often.


So no turkey. I made bone broth because I’ve been doing battle with inflammation and Dr. Axe says I should make this soup. So I got these “K-cups” (apparently they’re called, presumably named K for Keurig’s single serving coffee pods, but totally unrelated to the bone broth soup stock stuff – go commercialization and the 14-billion-dollar dudes with the growing Keurig empire – I’m sure Nespresso would love to take a crack at you) in California, and I added bean sprouts and other veggies. It wasn’t very filling, but it tasted great, and it smelled good too.


My kids’ school’s Tanzanian scholars came over and we ate the soup and talked about ugali, (easy to make, hard to make – they did not agree!) talked out their current goals and grades and college apps. NYU Abu Dhabi – who knew?! Stanford’s got a campus now in New York City, and Webster’s got a base in Switzerland, and schools are spreading out and diversifying loads. Not just sending students abroad for a semester, but off-shooting themselves, so this makes sense. But how to write an application essay on tribal Female Genital Mutilation and gender equality in Tanzania for a university where women’s rights are up-and-coming, but certainly not fully established. How to write an essay on climate change for people who live so close to the land already they perhaps have little to recycle. I set the timer for the girls to write a 10-minute draft, bumped up to 15, and finally cut off at twenty-five. Set a timer – that’s a good way to start an essay when you’d really rather not have to write one.


Quick aside on style: when you’re writing numbers, one through nine are written out, 10 and above should be numerical, unless they start or end a sentence, in which case, you write them out. Rules are meant to be broken, but start with that, you know?  One more aside, on me this time: I decided to recombine myself a bit.  The Grammar God thing I do on Facebook has ramped up with new followers.  I don't plan to identify myself there, but here, I'll claim it.  So I hope you're willing to put up with an occasional English tip.  It won't change my informal writing style here.  No biggie!

Anyway, the girls and I then reviewed their essay question to be sure they were answering it without gaps. That’s step one with any essay. Examine the question, in its entirety, to be sure you’re answering the whole thing. These girls are brilliant and thorough, and their initial writing was right on target. If NYU Abu Dhabi is where they end up, that school will be very fortunate indeed. They’ve got other schools they’re hoping for as well, and same as I said to my own kid who’s been through it, and all others I’ve helped review their applications, that school will be VERY lucky if you go there.


Fact is, the more you get to know a person, the more you know why a school should say yes to them.  (That's why it's so important that they truly put themselves in their essays).  And it's why it’s such a brilliant privilege to be some small part of their process of accomplishment. Not just because it was Thanksgiving day -- this gratitude is everywhere, all the time.


Eventually I drove the girls home to their host families, one down by the lake and the other in the Swiss countryside where they close the roads at certain times for cows to cross: Cow O’clock. We had a while, winding our way through the fields, to talk about the Tanzanian view of the American presidential election, and where there are glimmers of hope despite despair in certain circles.


If for one minute you think the future is dim, spend an hour with a teenage girl. From anywhere. Or boy. Ten minutes, frankly. Listen carefully. I’m telling you.


I dropped her off and made my way home, far from my parents, my uncle and aunt, my brother and his kids, my husband and my boys, my American friends. No turkey in sight. No cranberry sauce in the shape of its can. No sweet potato pie with browned marshmallows or stuffing or salad or brocolli or pumpkin pie that smells like nutmeg or pecan. No green beans with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup and dry fried onions. No yams.


I used to love my grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving in central California, how she’d set seats all around the dining table, and she had to use the piano bench at one end, where she used to sit. She leant back by mistake one time, her elbows hit the piano keys, and she laughed and said “free concert.” I am thankful now for her, for that, for all the thanks-giving and all the Thanksgivings, including the one during which I giggled my way through “repeating after me,” as the woman with a very posh English accent got me married, and today’s bone broth soup and Tanzanian girls with my hybrid US/UK boy still here in Switzerland. The first Swahili word the girls taught me last year was zawadi. Gift. That’s what I feel today. Gifted. And grateful for all of it.

You know, in Dubai most folks don't love the Flintstones, but those in Abu Dhabi do.



Conflation of Asides

Posted by nancyfreund11 on November 19, 2016 at 7:00 PM Comments comments (0)

Conflation of Asides.

I’ve been insane with abundance. I’ve got 20 minutes before my great friend, great writer friend, I might say, but great friend Michelle and her husband are due to pick me up to go out for Thai food at the place that once gave me all the purple orchids from their tables because it was my birthday, and I love that place, and it’s right next door to the King Size pub where Michelle’s college roommate and fellow study-abroad pal from Paris will be performing in her annual “duelling pianos” gig with her fabulous husband Jeff. We like to go and make requests and sing along with our American accents when they’re here. Michelle’s recently become Swiss and she’s really quite at home here, but first and foremost we are both still foreign, and a night like tonight we kinda feel like we fit in. Orchids or not. I have a favorite FAVORITE Thai place in California, which if you’re ever in Santa Barbara you must visit, Hollis and Jan run Muen Fan, and they’re the only people I know who make Thai tea pudding, and it is awesome. Someone in their family invented it. You really ought to have it, next time you’re in Santa Barbara. You really ought to go to Santa Barbara. That is all an aside. And believe it or not, this free-ranging paragraph I’ve just spewed out is in fact following a rather formal structure. Here’s my topic sentence: Everything Is An Aside.

This is life. Note my punctuation up there, because it’s not just a topic sentence, it’s also a headline, and computers these days even let you use “headline casing” I think, so the first letter of every word is capitalized. Anyway, I think it works like that. If I really wanted to be dramatic and youthful, I would add full stops between the words, and really, the phrase is probably deserving. Everything. Is. An. Aside.

Anyway (there’s that silly “anyway," again, inserted as an apology, really, like I’d lost my train of thought and wanted to tell you I’d realized it, when in fact I had not lost my train of thought at all.  My train's just on several tracks at once, which is not at all unusual). Anyway, “an” should not be capitalized in a headline, I'm aware. But this business of headline caps and so on really is an aside. And I figure it’s ok to insert an aside in a little piece I’m writing on the value of -- indeed the foundational necessity of -- the ASIDE. Plus, I mentioned there’s an urgency here, right? Michelle and Claude are coming now in ten.

Today the Geneva Writers Group had a poetry course with American writer Laura Kasischke, who was completely refreshing, deep, and accessible, smart and self-deprecating, all in equal measure. I kinda hate a workshop, normally. The minute I’m told we’ll have exercises, I start wondering if I can get out, but today’s variety of parlour games and practical stuff was truly generative and genuinely interesting. I won’t go into detail. (I will say – queue the parens, another form of linguistic apology, good Lord, I’m a bad feminist, in my way, apologizing all over the place like this) but I will say for goodness sakes, READ Laura Kasischke. Her poetry and her fiction, and if you can get your hands on her essays, I’d think, that too. I certainly plan to). That was an aside as well, but a very important one. And in case that wasn’t yet clear – ASIDES ARE IMPORTANT. Everything happens in the margins, you know. The show the magician puts on has all the doves and flying red silk scarves at center stage so the magic can happen in the peripheries. Yeah, we all know this, but I grew up knowing it. My dad was a magician. Not too many people know that about him, and even fewer about me, I think. An aside. So. Read Laura K. Her website will tell you how to pronounce her name, which would be awesome of you to know as well. Ka-siss-kee, I think.

But in the meantime, I want to just share the one huge, center-stage gem she started with today that I’ve really fallen in love with. The whole thing was on the “image.” But she quoted a writer named Revery on blending of images, maybe more “conflating” of images. I’ll give you the quote she gave us below. But then she quoted an American short story writer she oddly met in Paris, Dan Chaon, who talked about grabbing an idea and writing a little thing about it and putting it away, and then finding another idea flit through, and writing a thing about it till it’s kinda exhausted for the moment, and it too gets set aside, and another, and another, and you put all these things in a drawer and forget them, and go figure, they mate. She said her poems are conceived this way as well. I loved the idea of this, and I hope the knowledge of it may make me a poet. It probably won’t though, because if you’ve read this, thus far, you already know, my drawer full of writing probably has a lot of flirting and rolling around going on, a few tequila shots and a beer bong, and maybe there’s a hook-up in the corner that probably shouldn’t happen, but no one’s getting down to mating, and god forbid there’s a conception -- it probably will not become a thing of beauty. I’m kinda all over the place. Especially when there's abundance. 

But guess what? That was ALL a big fat aside. I’m still leading up to the thing I started with, which is to say I’m full-to-bursting with stuff I want to say. I’m recording my voice in audio and scribbling notes by flashlight and writing on the bus and planes and trains and automobiles, quite literally, because of some stuff I’m going through that is very freaking difficult (tempered the language there, but it really does deserve a stronger f-word), and my dear friend Maria told me, you have to do this now, this is your thing you have to do, and I’m so sorry, and I’ve been through it, and you have to write about it because you can write. And a lot of people can’t, but a lot of people will also go through this. They are going through it now, so this is what you have to do.

So I am seeing my mom through her improvements or declines (primarily declines) into dementia and my father as he keeps a lid on, in his way. I will write about it as and when I can. I think Maria’s right. But that will be center stage when I can do it. And the magic that is happening is still here in the margins. I admit this isn’t edited, and it’s fast-fast-fast. But sometimes I think that’s a useful way to tell a thing.  Or get to it in its incipient and necessary starting stages.  And it didn’t get put in a drawer to find its mate, it just came out all on its own. It’ll be a blog, I guess, and I am grateful to that lovely poet Laura for the inspiration.  "Conflation" in my mind is the mashing together of two things, but perhaps a melange, or big blend, or total orgy of ideas is more my style when I need to tell the truth. The truth is never singular and not usually direct.

So. Apologies if you couldn’t follow it, or couldn’t be bothered, which of course are two different things, although they seem to have the same result. I guess I’m trying to tell you how to write a poem, from what I learned from Laura K, and how to live a life, from what I’ve learned from my amazing parents, both writers, business people, humourists, and magicians -- either really, up on stage or generally, in life. My dad could levitate a man, my mom could design a dress and sew. She made my bridal gown. He did my 5th birthday for all my little birthday pals. There are many stories in our lives that seem to take priority and center stage, but the stuff we remember most, that has the deepest impact, may be in the margins, and these things may stand alone or they may blend. But my thought for the day is this: Do not discount the marginalia. The real life lessons may rest in the asides.

"The image is a pure creation of the mind.  It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities.  The more the distance between the two jutaposed realities is both distant and true, the stronger the image will be."  ~Pierre Reverdy



Posted by nancyfreund11 on November 17, 2016 at 12:50 AM Comments comments (0)

Some people believe there’s no such thing as too much information, but I’d say it depends on the category. For example, I love a certain level of gross. Last week at my folks’ house in California we had Jake the awesome pesticide guy help us out with what we learned were pantry moths in my dad’s office. (Hidden stash of pistachios behind his computer – highly NOT recommended. I may never eat a pistachio again in fact, and they were previously my third favorite nut!) But I bravely/foolishly asked Jake to tell me the grossest thing he’d encountered in his work. Let’s just say maggots, flashlight, and standing water, and leave it at that. I will not be eager to go into the pest control industry myself. But getting yourself grossed out on the subject of animal corpses is one thing… being uber-connected through tech is something else.

Many users of Amazon may not realize that the publisher has a magic dashboard that shows pages read. In fact, authors are paid by Kindle pages read, so if their books are purchased but never read, the authors don’t earn as much money as they would if people actually read their stuff. Crazy days, my friends. It’s the first time any creative work has an appreciation gauge tied to pay. Or if not appreciation, at least consumption. Plenty of authors object -- painters sell a painting for a fee regardless of whether it will be hung in a heavily trafficked area. Someone downloads a song for a fee – the singer gets paid no matter how many times, if ever, the buyer plays the song. Writers didn’t want their compensation messed with, just because Amazon COULD. I too was concerned though I don’t sell a gazillion copies of my books anyway, and those I do sell might go to a friend as opposed to a fan. Friends are notoriously bad at actually reading the stuff they buy from their author pals. (And let me state, that’s fine by me! Support of any kind is fabulous). Also, if a person skips to the end of their digital book, does the author get paid for faked pages-read? It’s all open to interpretation – something computers aren’t always good at.

But as often happens, experience has taught me a lesson.  The Amazon thing started and I was buckled in for the ride.  Because I don’t have that many books out, when I get wind of a friend reading one of them – odds are good, it might be the only active one being read. This week I enjoyed a screen shot of my novel ‘Rapeseed’ queued up as a travel book by one of my “kids.” Not my own biological kids, mind you – they still haven’t read my fiction for fear they’ll find themselves in it, I think – but one of my period five sophomores from Whittier High, circa 1990. We were studying oxymorons when I had cause to bring this kid out into the hall to privately discuss his rabble rousing and generally delightful eagerness that occasionally needed tempering in the classroom. In case my tone didn’t come across correctly in that sentence, (writing sometimes sucks for that, doesn’t it – conveying tone?) let me state clearly, I loved that kid. He was in turn hilarious, smart, energetic, a bright spark, a blast, and a pain in the ass. In the hall that afternoon, he said he suspected I felt about him the way his mother did – a love/hate relationship at times. (Slam dunk on the oxymoron reference, I was thinking). Point is he was a great student to have in class. So perhaps it’s no surprise that as adults, we would have found our way to a Facebook friendship across two continents today. Now I get to see his gorgeous family and some truly outstanding creative work done by his bespoke furniture company in Southern California. I’m really proud of him for his accomplishments and consider it a privilege to be his friend.

So when I was en route from California back to Switzerland a couple days ago, I saw the heartwarming news that he’d brought ‘Rapeseed’ along on a trip. A recent promotion for that book had just ended, and of course, anyone could be reading it. But at least one person, I actually know in real life, and I was his English teacher. I click my author dashboard and see that my book sales for all three titles have now flat lined, but yesterday, someone read 413 pages of ‘Rapeseed.’ There's just no better feeling for an author than "seeing" someone reading your work.

I am suddenly transported back to age 23 at Whittier High, where Max the head custodian thought I was a student the first week and tried to kick me out of my classroom after-hours. There I am in sensible heels and a pink pencil skirt, completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of the job, newly graduated from college and grad school, with a low ponytail instead of the ponytail I preferred at the time on the top of my head. I am trying to find creative ways to be an adult, and to get those kids, barely younger than myself, with all their hormones and energy – (they’re more squirrels than human people, really) -- to read ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘Farewell to Manzanar’ in their homes at night, and then prove they’d fully digested the assigned section the next day. ‘Catcher in the Rye’ and ‘A Separate Peace’ and everyone’s favorite, ‘Tequila Mockingbird.’

And in the blink of an eye, I’m 50 again, a writer in Switzerland – and someone in America is reading ‘Rapeseed’ while on a business trip. Thanks to this insane digital age, I’ve got a blue-line graph showing the page count rise. And it’s no oxymoron, I straight-up love this connection across time and space, my old me teaching those fabulous nutjobs to the new me, raising boys of my own. It’s not too much information. Traditional publishing has changed, but I’m by no means bemoaning the changes. This is gratifying and great fun. And whether I’m right or wrong, I’m loving guessing who’s doing the reading.


Sequence is a Big Part of Consequence

Posted by nancyfreund11 on November 2, 2016 at 1:50 PM Comments comments (0)

Sequence is a big part of consequence.  That line, or one like it, certainly that concept, is from Ali Smith’s first essay “On Time” in ‘Artful.’ She asks whether sequence is essential to meaning. Although I’d never considered the question, because I’m not that deep, I do have an answer. I’m really not that deep at all -- and I make up for lack of depth with bravery and confidence. So I’m going to tell you I have THE answer to her question. Yes. Sequence is essential. Sequence equals meaning.

I want to tell you a story.

I was on my way to the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. On my flight I sat next to a seriously good looking guy who I doubt would have chatted with me had we not been seat mates and (as it turned out) had he not been feeling vulnerable. Quick aside -- strangers become more and more good looking the more you learn their stories. This awareness could well serve many a single person in his 20's. Or hers. Of course, we only learn this truth when it’s no longer needed… Ah, youth. Wasted on the young, and all that.

Anyway, he was cute. Dark hair, sunglasses, hip sort-of five o'clock shadow. Like George Michael on a great day in the '80s, only more so. The steward kept marching by, slamming overhead compartments closed and the stuff they do pre-flight in the aisles. “Did you see that?” my friend asked, rattled. “Why’s he back here, watching me?” And I said no, he’s just doing what he’s supposed to do. Then the steward disappeared up front. My friend said something about the pilot and the uniform of the steward and the gold wings on his lapel. Far as he was concerned, something wasn't right.

Looking back at Ali Smith’s question about sequence, had I known already what my friend was doing, I’d have understood it in an instant. But we had to fly a while and have a good long conversation to untangle all the timelines -- which then delivered me the meaning. One thing to note was those wings on that guy’s black suit lapel. To my friend, it meant he was a pilot which, if true, should have meant he’d be up front to prepare to fly the plane. His being in the back is what threw him and got him talking, carefully, to me.

I’m going to try to do this without naming names, because, Consequences. Let’s call my seat-mate fellow Seat. He’s from a country where you can’t be gay, although he is, and he’s a pilot. Earned his wings.  On his airline, that gold pin is not for flight attendants but for pilots.  His partner, who’s older than Seat and from a country where being gay is celebrated, was a flight attendant who'd wanted to become a pilot but couldn't pursue that dream due to money troubles.  He had to content himself with drinks carts and slamming overhead compartments. So he's not a pilot as he'd hoped, but he has plenty going for him. Guy's got guts! He’s the one who’d braved proposing marriage to Seat. There were many things he did and said that made Seat fall in love. Things that made Seat scared and happy and giddy with withheld commitment that he was finally ready to deliver. Seat was flying to Rome to surprise his man and celebrate. A bold new step that could go awry, especially if the timing of our delayed flight messed up the surprise. No wonder he was nervous and excited. As he told me more, I began to understand.

His parents were so angry when he’d come out that he then renounced his homosexuality at home, while trying to be true to himself where and when it was safe to do so. He couldn't be a pilot if he was openly gay. I began to understand how complicated his situation was. I say began, because let’s face it, this is a thing I will never fully understand. There were lots of people in his town, he said, who do their own things only when and where it’s safe. But those times and places are moving goal posts -- they never stay reliable. Some gay men might grow their hair, he said, and wear it like a lady's. Some might wear women’s clothes in private or jewelry when they feel they can. Many people drink beer in secret clubs that come and go. Some dare to speak their minds. Seat had the audacity to speak his mind to me and others here and there, he explained. He found ways to speak his mind in tattoo ink on his body, where usually it’s hiding under clothes.  Whatever your issues, wherever you're from, we learn hard lessons about how much we can and reveal.  Everyone learns in some ways, it's dangerous to be yourself.

I listened. I thought whatever would come of the literary week in Positano, this flight, this new friend, will be my most important gift. I should find a way to honor it and the challenges of his situation. I hugged him good-bye in Rome and wished him well as hard as I’ve ever wished a thing.

And then I shelved his story in my mind. It’s not my thing to tell, I thought.  And this is not the time.

The writer’s conference started, though, and something shocking happened. Our instructor brought his 10-year-old twins to our classroom. My novel features 10-year-old twins! Eager to find meaning in the week with this important writer, I admit I took a soupcon of encouragement. The twins set up bowls in the back of our room, and we were to go, in turn, and pick a piece from each bowl. We could look or close our eyes and take our chances. I have a habit, sometimes, of paying attention to the wrong things, so I didn’t know what we were doing. I let most of the room do their thing and then went back to the bowls myself. Without looking, I plucked out one small plastic piece from each. I returned to my chair and saw I had tiny bits of Lego body parts to stick together. A pair of legs in trousers with black boots. And then the torso. A black suit jacket, white shirt, red necktie. On the little man's lapel, gold pilot's wings. His little yellow Lego hands reached for his accessory I’d pulled out from another bowl. A giant stein of beer. I attached the head and hair. George Michael shades. A small, dark swipe of mustache. And his hair was long and like a lady's.  In my hand, in perfect Lego metaphor, I held the gift of my time with Seat.  If I’d pulled out those little pieces any other time, there would have been no meaning.  And it would not have given me a thing to write about that made this story mine.

We did some prompted writing activities with our little Lego people, but the little man himself was the important thing for me, by far. Nearing the end of the conference, I took him out to photograph him in places near our hotel. A lemon tree. An iron railing. An Italian post box... and then a gust of wind got him. He landed far below, in a private garden. I could see him lying on his back, far below, but there was no way I could get in that garden.  I walked to the Missoni store to console myself with retail therapy, as Italians do. I’m just weird enough that I told the people in Missoni about my little Lego man, and they vowed to find the owner of the garden and attempt a rescue. I was to come back to the store in the morning, which I did. They had my little man, and we took more pictures with the season's new Missoni scarves.

I’ve kept him in my office ever since. He reminds me that we are not in charge here. Our only job is to notice, be generous and kind, and tell the truth. Be a little brave and weird sometimes. Don’t exploit someone else’s story. Don't betray a friend, but clinch the deal on your important memories in whatever way you can. Rescue your Lego men with unexpected help. Give good hugs in airports. Wish your wishes for the best. Wait till a thing makes a story yours, so you can tell it. That's what my little Lego man is for me. Write what you think you can. If you think for just one minute we’re not already all connected, remember that you’re wrong.