Episode 59—Jessica Lahey Reads “I’ve Taught Monsters”

Jessica Lahey returns to the podcast to read her essay.

By Brendan O’Meara

Hello, friends, fellow CNFers, it’s The Creative Nonfiction Podcast, the show where I speak with the world’s best artists about creating works of nonfiction and the actionable insights they share to help you with your work.

Today I welcome back Jessica Lahey (@jesslaheyof Episode 51 fame, author of the NYT bestseller The Gift of Failure and, most recently, the author of the essay “I’ve Taught Monsters,” which appeared in Issue 63 of the literary magazine Creative Nonfiction.

For this episode, Jess reads the essay in its entirety and she gives a knockout performance. I noodled around with music for a bit, but I couldn’t find the perfect tracks for it, so I just let it stand: Jess simply reading her wonderful essay.

Before we get to her reading I want to ask you something: What are you struggling with? Is there something in your work that’s giving you trouble or are you hitting road blocks? I want to know. Ping me on Twitter or email me. Maybe I can help.

Also, be sure to share this with a friend, leave a review on iTunes if you got any value out of this, and let me know if you dig these author readings.

Also, it’s Saratoga horse racing season and some of you might not even know that I write words too. My first book, Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year came out in 2011 courtesty of SUNY Press. It’s a timeless story about the track and the 2009 season. Want to support me and the podcast? Buy a book! It’s in paperback.

That’s it, here’s Episode 59 as Jessica Lahey returns to read from her essay “I’ve Taught Monsters.”

Episode 39—The Gentleman’s Guide to Arousal-Free Slow Dancing

By Brendan O’Meara

I tried something a little new. Not the reading of the essay part. I’ve done that before on the podcast. I added some serious production value to the reading of The Gentleman’s Guide for Arousal-Free Slow Dancing. 

I added some music in throughout the piece. I think it helps jazz it up without distracting too much. Let me know what you think because I’ll probably invite writers to read essays and try to do something similar each time. 

This essay appeared in Creative Nonfiction No. 62, an issue themed “Joy: Unexpected Brightness in the Darkest Times.”

I also interviewed Kim Kankiewicz and Angela Palm, both represented in this issue.

Thanks for listening!

To Re-Read or Not to Re-Read, That is the Question.

Written by Brendan O’Meara (<==== Click my name to go to my lovely Facebook author page!)

A couple books I re-read a lot.
A few books I re-read a lot.

There are two camps: those who re-read books and those who don’t. I understand both sides. Take Chuck Klosterman, one of my favorite writers. He says:

I don’t often read books twice. There are too many I haven’t read once.

True. But that’s just it. There’s TOO many books out there in the first place. Even if you read 100 books a year (or more) and lived to be 80 years old, you’d still say on your death bed, “I never got around to Atlas Shrugged.

I re-read books for the same reason I re-watch movies. The first time is for the initial experience. The subsequent times are for breaking it down the way a football coach goes over the game tape. There’s so much to learn from revisiting a favorite work. Why not have more of a relationship with a book instead of one-night-standing with several more?

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Fictional Dabblings

Written by Brendan O’Meara (email sign up ============>)

hemingway, fiction, brendan o'meara

I have a ton of respect for the short story. I have a ton of respect for the (well done) long form magazine piece. Why? It’s all about word economy and pacing. The real estate to get the story told can’t be too expansive. I’ve been reading the short stories of Karen Russell, George Saunders, Ernest Hemingway. There’s something so underrated about the short story.

Unless you are Russell, Saunders or Alice Munro, short stories just don’t sell. As a collection anyway. Another drawback could be that as soon as you feel invested in a character the story is over and it’s onto the next one where the reader must start all over again and get to know new characters. It so one-night-standish, but that’s also the beauty. The reader gets to know to new characters, new flings and no walk of shame.

So, I’ve been dabbling. There’s a sports short fiction contest put on by Winning Writers. Last year’s story, Fight Night, was the annual winner. It’s a nice little story about a good doctor in debt to his patient. In 2013 I entered their essay contest and submitted an essay version of The Last Championship and lost. I felt defeated, but what are you going to do? So this year I decided to write a short story about a former Major League baseball player who moves to a small town and is courted by all the slow-pitch softball teams in the area. The story is The Ringer, and it’s an allegory for modern sports negotiations. Here’s the opening:

I was a middling baseball player. I was aware of my middlingness and thus saved my money while I was in the pros. I never made much, but it was above average and for a short time you might even say I was wealthy. I mean, I once test-drove a Maserati. My best season saw me play 93 games, bat .271 with 14 RBIs and one home run (an inside the park homerun when the center fielder, the great Ken Griffey, Jr. tried to make one of his typically outstanding plays. Show off.) After my career was effectively over I took a year or two to do nothing more than be a bullpen catcher. I made something like $40,000 a year to watch professional baseball players do their thing, warm up a relief pitcher late in the game, and otherwise reflect on how good I had it.

There came a time to give that up. I had my money, yes, but I had no education so I was basically unhireable. I wanted to do something and I didn’t really care what that something actually was. I lived an extraordinary life for a time and now it was time to blend in as best I could. I’d be the red to somebody’s blue and make purple.

I could walk into any hardware store, diner, or supermarket and not draw the slightest bit of attention. That was the hope.

I loved playing ball and there were twilight leagues I could join, but that didn’t seem fair. Plus seeing middle-aged men in baseball uniforms stretched like bat-wing membranes over their midsections was depressing or, at least, it depressed me. Strangely, what seemed more age appropriate, like mom jeans, was playing slow-pitch softball.

It was fun. I’ve got a few other short stories in the hopper and I’m going to try and land those at magazines and journals.

There’s so much allure to the NOVEL that the short story gets pushed aside. If nothing else the short story is good exercise. There are plenty of novels that are written that could have been saved had they just been a short story. Same goes for a LOT of nonfiction books. A 10,000-word magazine piece or Kindle Single would read so much better than a 70,000-word book.

What do you think?

Best in Tweet 2/27/13

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Written by Brendan O’Meara

Hot dog, we’ve got some good ones this week. Buckle up. It’s this week’s Best in Tweet.

 

 

 

 

 

The Best Book on Writing You’ve Never Read

images-1Written by Brendan O’Meara
Word Count: 518

I’ve tried to build a following by writing infrequently, say once a week. Hasn’t worked too well. Now, I’m going to try and write several times a week and see if the spaghetti sticks. Maybe a little bit of blogging will help warm me up before hit the “real” writing. Who knows? I stress about platform building way too much. Or do I ???

What is this book I’m referring to, the best book on writing you’ve never read? It’s The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics. Yep, a book on how to write comic books. It’s 122 pages of wonderful tips. My great mentor Thomas French, author of Zoo Story among others, assigned this to us and it was one of those against-the-grain teaching tools that makes him so brilliant.

Part one of the book is the most valuable as it pertains to the basic fundamentals.

Story Structure
Creating Drama
Subplots
Characterization

One pointer author Dennis O’Neil touches upon early is this

Telling you story as clearly as possible

How easy and how difficult is that? You have all these flourishes of language, maybe even a couple of wonderful sentences, but are they driving the story forward? Respect the reader’s time might be another way of saying what O’Neil said.

Here are some other things I highlighted:

Know the end of the story before you write the beginning (I call this the Lighthouse Effect. You’re stranded out at sea. You don’t know where to go. But what’s that? A light! You start swimming toward it. This way you know that all your words are in service of that ending. You can’t do this all the time, but I feel you should be thinking of an ending before you reach the end. It might come to you 500 words into your story or 5,000 or 50,000. But once you figure it out you’re writing downhill, baby.)

People are interested in people, not things (the exception is the Ring of Power and maybe the Elder Wand. This is especially important if you’re dealing in story where not a whole lot happens, those narratives of revelation. If readers love the characters enough, they’ll go along for about any ride.)

Put your hero out on the end of a limb and start sawing.

Show only what’s important. So start the scene as late as possible and once the dramatic point is made, end it.

Heroic failure is the stuff of great drama.

Never write a scene, or a single panel, that does not contribute directly to your plot. … that every word should contribute to the emotion you’re trying to engender in the reader.

Tell you what. I’m going to stop there. I think there’s enough nuggets there to either talk about or think about. If nothing else, writers across all genres need to find inspiration and tips from other creative media. That’s why DVD commentary is so valuable, especially, when available, DVD commentary on deleted scenes (If you own Ratatouille, listen to director Brad Bird talk about why he deleted scenes).

Bonus question: Who’s the best orphan? Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, or Harry Potter?

I’m still doing this pretty slick giveaway. If you subscribe to my website, I’ll send you a personalized copy of Six Weeks in Saratoga.

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Author Q&A: Natalie Keller Reinart

Written by Brendan O’Meara

 

I won’t have to tell you much about Natalie Keller Reinart because Alex, the protagonist of her “The Head and Not the Heart”, is a good chunk of who Natalie is: a writer, a horseman, a believer.

Her indie book swoops the reader into the thoroughbred world. Alex is in her twenties, a strange decade where you’re trying to grab a toe-hold in the world, when college spits you out, and when you’re now a pro against other pros. It’s competition time. Alex is in that world and she tries to find out where she belongs.

While not a traditional “road novel”, Alex leaves her place in Ocala, Fl for a weekend in NYC to look at a horse at Aqueduct. She runs into people her own age and questions her place in the world. Ultimately, she follows her heart.

Here’s my interview with NKR.

What made you go with “The Head and Not the Heart” as the title, because Alex is all heart before she thinks?

It’s really about the horse business, in general. That hard-to-find balance between loving horses, and making money from horses. Can you distance yourself emotionally from your horses? Should you? A successful business plan shows turn-over, it shows tax depreciation, it shows dispersals of unprofitable goods… on horses. You know just to where to rub each horse so that they buckle their knees with pleasure; you know which filly likes cookies and which one likes peppermints and which one will tear down the barn for a bag of Doritos. And you have to reduce them to dollar amounts on a balance sheet.

It doesn’t feel right, and it shouldn’t feel right, to think of horses in the same way that you would a warehouse full of merchandise, but that’s how business decisions are made.

 Alex needed to leave Ocala in order for her to realize its importance, right?

The best way to appreciate anything is to spend time without it.

 Why do you suppose Alex has a hard time fitting in?

Alex is isolated on the farm. That’s typical of horse farms, in my experience. When I was eventing, we met up with our friends at events and horse shows; otherwise we were alone on our farms, scattered across rural areas. When I was galloping, everyone was much older than me. There aren’t that many twenty-something girls galloping racehorses.

The people that Alex does meet are Alexander’s friends, and they, like him, are much older than him and not the sort of people she’d have much in common with. There are a lot of good ol’ boys in the north Florida countryside. It’s a world apart from the south Florida subdivisions and show barns where Alex grew up.

It’s not a “road book” in the strictest sense, but in this instance, how did the destinations help Alex define herself?

Ocala and New York are both sides of Alex’s coin. There was a very common sort of girl at the stables I rode at when I was a kid: gifted, creative, full of intellectual potential, and not interested in anything outside of horses. These girls could have taken two different paths in life. Alex took the path with the horses, but she believes she could have lived some other life, as Someone Creative, Doing Creative Things, and New York represents that to her. When she’s tired of falling off horses, she’s wistful for that archetypal writer/artist’s lifestyle she thinks she might have led. Ocala, on the other hand, is pretty much heavenly for someone that thinks of nothing but horses, and hell on earth for anyone that might have other interests. The minute Alex thought there might be something else out there, Ocala became a nightmare.

 I’ve heard many arguments for and against horse slaughter, but I had never heard the argument you presented, which was, these animals are biohazards, it was a different tack altogether.

Horses put down with chemicals really are biohazards. The chemicals used in a euthanasia procedure can taint groundwater, and so some places have laws preventing the burial of euthanized animals. Water contamination in Florida is a major concern because the water table is so high. Consider also that if you have a farm, you are probably drinking well water from your own land. You don’t want the same chemicals that just killed a thousand-pound animal seeping into your water supply, and the government doesn’t, either.

The chemical argument against horse slaughter is a little different. Basically, drugs, both topical and internal, leave residue in the body. Some have a withdrawal period, after which the meat from the horse is considered safe for consumption. Some, like phenylbutazone, do not. I’ve yet to meet a horse that has either never had bute, or whose owner could prove to me that the horse never had bute. Horses rarely have one owner. Who can account for the chemicals that they’ve consumed over a lifetime?

This story is pretty close to the marrow, isn’t it? To what extent is this book autobiographical?

The struggles to find a balanced life, one that isn’t tipped too far in any one direction… that’s very real.

Horses can very easily take up every breathing minute. The outside world can just disappear. That works for some people… it didn’t work for me. I need a little bit of horse, a little bit of society. Not just one or the other.

You opted to self-publish? How did you come to that decision and what steps did you take from drafting to your pub date?

I wanted to write a book that would ring true to horse-people. I wanted to dig into the emotions of loving horses, and look at all the tragedies and triumphs of life with horses. That’s not a huge audience to write for. The book I wanted to write was not going to have a shot with a big publisher. And I wasn’t particularly interested in smaller presses that specialize in equestrian books, because their books are so expensive and their print runs are so small. A self-published book has a print run that lasts as long as people want to buy the book, and I could price it reasonably. No one wants a $35.00 hardcover of The Head and Not The Heart. They don’t have to. That doesn’t hurt my feelings at all.

I also think that self-publishing is an opportunity for a writer to produce a book as a work of art as they meant it to be read. There are many musicians and artists producing work that hasn’t been edited into a commercially palatable form, and quite a lot of it is very, very good. I don’t think a book necessarily has to appeal to the widest possible audience. I’m not sure a book has to appeal to anyone but the writer. If the writer loves it, and feels it says everything the writer wanted it to say, then if someone else loves it as well, that’s just the cherry on top.

As for the steps that I took before production, I did everything myself at first. My husband, who is a bookseller and who has the same taste in books that I do, was my editor. If he doesn’t like something, he’s right and it’s wrong. I copy-edited. Ten times. I memorized the book. There are a few typos, but fewer than your average Big Six book. I created the print edition. I created the Kindle edition. I created the Nook edition. I created a cover in Gimp, which is the freeware version of Photoshop. I produced the print and ebook editions of this book on less than a hundred dollars.

My publicity largely came from my blog following. I run Retired Racehorse Blog, and was blogging daily at the time. I had incredible page view numbers, which contributed some book readers. I was running a weekly book review of horse books, to draw attention to the genre. Some authors and bloggers ran reviews of the book. And this is where self-publishing’s value really shows itself: it took about nine months for the book to really take off, but since mid-summer it has been a consistent best-seller on Amazon’s Horse Racing and Equestrian lists, and has been reviewed in mainstream publications. A commercially published book that took nearly a year to “hit” would probably not be in print by that point.

I’m a believer.

Which is harder, being a writer, or being a horseman?

Being a writer is a struggle for me; I fall back on the horses over and over again. I always have. It’s hard to live your own life and live other people’s lives in your head as well. Not to mention, as a writer I was paying the bills by writing all sorts of articles I couldn’t work up the slightest interest in, which was just depressing.

Now I do both. I found a day job that lets me work with horses, and I write when I can fit it in. At first, it seemed like a kind of failure: I had wanted to write full-time, and here I was going to work with my lunch-bag every day again. I produce a lot less, which I find frustrating. But I can’t deny that I’m a horsewoman, and I have to fulfill that side of my personality as well. It would be easier to just be a horsewoman, and concentrate 100% on horses and then come home and watch TV and fall asleep and not feel guilty that I didn’t write, but that wouldn’t be fulfilling either. I need to be both.

 Your write, “I was sick to death of horsemen who did things a certain way because that’s the way they’d always been done.” Can the deep-seated culture and Old Kentucky Boys be changed? Will they allow it?

Isn’t the definition of good ol’ boys kind of that they just won’t change from the good ol’ days? They do things the way their pappy taught ‘em? The people I admire in racing come from the sport horse world, like Michael Matz and Rodney Jenkins. They have a more well-rounded understanding of horses, in my opinion. They are riders with first-hand knowledge of the athletic abilities of horses far beyond how fast a horse can run.

Where does your optimism lie in horse racing?

I don’t know that I am optimistic about racing. I know that I love it, but I am rarely successful in convincing other people to love it. It feels like there are just enough rich people buying horses every year to keep the races running, but the average American remains unconvinced.

And there is great gulf between the sport/pleasure horse world and the racing world. On both sides, most participants are completely ignorant of how the other operates. There is no cooperation. There are no shared concerns for the future. There is such potential for collaboration, especially considering big legislative topics that affect everyone involved with horses: land use, the diversion of corn from feed into fuels, national regulation of animals. But racing continues to exist as something apart from the rest of the horse business, isolated.

America has this incredible population of horse-lovers who know nothing about racing and do not care to. Until this year, when the retired racehorse shows and programs started showing up at racetracks, the horse racing industry made it pretty clear they didn’t need the horse-lovers. Maybe that opinion is starting to change.

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Verlyn Klinkenborg: Being a Writer vs. Occupying the Writer’s Space

Written by Brendan O’Meara

I attended an author event at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt where author and essayist Verlyn Klinkenborg talked about many, many things—all writing.

What struck me was what he opened with: do people/aspiring writers want to be writers or occupy the writer’s space? There’s a huge distinction. It’s my feeling that most people who want to occupy the space fail to realize how much hard work goes into writing. They like this idea of isolation, liquor, snow falling, long talks over coffee at a Parisian cafe, HUGE book advances. Being a writing is tough. You make little money. The best writers make it look so effortless that aspiring writers feel they can just waltz in and do it. Cardiac surgeons make open-heart surgery look easy, but I’m not going to cut open anybody’s chest because I want to occupy the operating room.

Time for me to get out of the way. Klinkenborg talks about perfect vs. perfect enough, shooting clay pigeon sentences, imagining sentences, and writers as manipulators.

It’s a great talk. Enjoy! (And please pardon the resolution. It’s all I’ve got!)

What did you take from the talk? Did anything strike a cord?

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Why we need independent bookstores

By Brendan O’Meara

As many of you know by now, Northshire Bookstore is currently raising money to open another shop in Saratoga Springs. This is wonderful news for readers and writers alike. I am both. Words from owner Chris Morrow below:

Friends – thank you so much for your support! As the owner of the bookstore I’d like to share where we are in this process. We are actively raising money to make this store a reality. We are looking at a number of spaces, including the old Borders space. But nothing is certain yet – we have a ways to go. Your support is very encouraging to me and all involved in this process. I will keep you posted as decisions get made. Thanks.

For readers, there’s no better place than an independent bookstore to hang out, browse the shelves, and buy the latest Stephen King or the debut novel that’s making all the news. The people who work at independent bookstores are voracious readers and feel an ownership of books and the written word.

The bookstore is threatened by the digital publishing—a viable option to small fries like me. But passionately ingrained independent bookstores will always carry on, something Northshire has been able to do. They will stand the test of digital time.

As a writer, a bookstore and folks like Morrow and Mary Allen host such wonderful author events. I attended the Andre Dubus III reading and signing in March of 2011 and loved it. I was lucky enough to have my own event for my book Six Weeks in Saratoga.

Bookstores foster a community of readers. We need books. We need stories. And we need people who to speak with—guardians of books.

Downtown Saratoga Springs has one of the best libraries I’ve ever seen. When my wife and I have come close to moving for jobs and the like, we always think, “Will there be a library like the one we have here?” There’s a vintage book shop in the Lyrical Ballad and with Northshire possibly opening up the doors to the old Borders building, Saratoga Springs will be the leader and champion of reading and writers in the Capital District.

What are your feelings about independent bookstores? What makes them so special?