One Good Book Tip

A good friend of mine, who has published books, won awards, had two essays featured in the Best American Essays series, plus thirteen other “notable essays,” and is a senior editor at a highly regarded literary journal, recently wrote me an email, asking if I would blurb his upcoming book—an absolute honor.

The subject title of his email?  “The Dreaded Blurb Request.”

Google “writers and marketing,” and the slightly pungent term, “self-promotion,” and you’ll find statements like “the bane of an author’s existence” (The Writing Cooperative), “10 (Practically) Cringe-less Self-Promotion Ideas for Authors” (Publisher’s Weekly), and “the essential element of becoming a successful author that many writers shun: self-promotion” (Huffpost).

I cringe just writing these words because, of course, I have a book coming out, Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children, and, as this is my year of saying “yes,” I am trying to do what I’ve never done before: try to promote this book.

Thankfully, beyond the constant tango of my personal angst and inner incriminations—“you really are an idiot” —one small and beautiful nugget of book advice recently “pixelized” from Authors Publish: The Magazine for Writers:

Email the literary journals that have published work from your book and ask the editors if they could “share the news.”

Of course. These editors have already supported your work. They want you to succeed because, one, they are really just very nice people who love writing and have devoted their lives to helping and promoting writers, and, two, your successes are their successes. They knew you when.

Emily Harstone, a pen name for apparently a well-published writer, shares in her article, Literary Journals: A Great Way to Promote Your Work,  her own convincing success story with contacting the editors who had previously published the poems that would appear in her upcoming book:

… three separate journals published reviews of my book, and all ten featured a promotion about it on their Facebook pages. Two also sent out an email that promoted my book along with other books by previous contributors.

Wow. So, I tried it. And I don’t think I’ll have a more pleasant experience than this one in getting this book out into the world.I have heard back from all of the editors. Every one. They wrote back quickly and with such generosity and goodwill, the perfect salve to angst and idiocy.   In a word, all said, “Yes.”

Julie Erikson, at JuxtaProse, posted my book news on Facebook, first emailing me and asking me for a link for pre-orders. Jill Christman, at River Teeth, offered to do a book review and to post info on social media and the RT webpage. The new editors at Fourth Genre will post the news on Facebook and Twitter. Adam Cohen and Jendi Reiter ( a fellow Saddle Road Press Author, I discovered) of Winning Writers shared my news on the WW website and in their January newsletter. Laura Newborn, the editor of Arts & Letters, posted my book news on their Contributor News page. Nawal Nader-French, the editor for Inverted Syntax, who nominated one of the title essays from the book for a Pushcart Prize, invited me to do an author interview about the book and read at their next event.

I am reminded, once more, how great and welcoming our literary community is.  

If you have a book coming out, try it. Send a friendly email. I sent nothing fancy: “Hey, my book is coming out and you published one of the pieces in it. Could you share the news?”

As writer and editor Anna Holmes says in her thoughtful remarks for the New York Times article, “The Demands of Book Promotion: Frivolous or Necessary?”: “If you were to put a book out into the world, which would you rather have — conversation or silence?”


Reading Audubon in the Light of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act's "Clarification"

Audubon's Birds of America cover

I just happened upon the current administration’s “clarification” of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act about the same time my husband handed me an old book buried in our bookcase, the 1950 Popular Edition of Audubon’s Birds of America. There was no grand public announcement by the administration on a decision made back in 2018, (you can read about it yourself because I can’t anymore ), in which the “incidental” death of a dozen (or a million) birds is A- okay.

At the same time, my daughter, a senior educator for the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES), had just gotten word that the transfer to ACES of a once broken-winged golden eagle rescued near the National Sand Dunes by the Frisco Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation center in Del Norte, Colorado was a “go.” She would drive the truck to Minturn to pick up the bird, the hand-off approved under the auspices of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

No “clarification” needed.

The Popular Edition of Audubon’s Birds of America was Macmillan’s effort to give “everyman” access to at least a truncated version of Audubon’s original 435 illustrations collected in the early 1800’s in double elephant folios. I am thinking about this now because amidst the charming forewarnings in the introduction to the book, such as “all the mythical species have been omitted” in this Audubon edition,  Ludlow Griscom, a pioneering ornithologist, addresses the destruction of habitat that was happening seventy years ago and accounted for the loss of birds far beyond the then public perception of the numbers shot down by hunters and target shooters and small boys “popping away at the birds on the lawn.”

Rather than succumb to the pessimism of the day, Griscom sought to rally his readers over conservation efforts such as the creation of federal and state parks and a “great chain of federal wildlife refuges.” Griscom was a pioneer who shifted ornithology from the study of dead birds to binocular observations. He reminds his readers of what could happen when “every nature lover” and “every bird watcher” keeps tally of the birds in their own backyards and contributes data that could lead to better conservation practices and laws.

Yesterday’s backyard bird watchers and nature lovers . And today’s non-profits.

Despite the news that our administration will quietly suggest that the disruption of nesting grounds, in the form of a bridge and tunnel, for 25,000 migrating sea birds is “incidental” and, therefore, A-Okay, I’ll continue Griscom’s rally: there are still those who care, those that still follow the heart and soul of legislation created in word and spirit to perpetuate in our skies wing and song and cry.

ACES lost its much beloved thirty-some year-old golden eagle just this past year, much to the despair of the whole Roaring Fork community. The eagle had been a successful educational ambassador to thousands of children over the years, not only because it was a living ambassador, but because it possessed a rarity of calm that allowed the kids the chance to see the golden eagle up close.

“The kids liked to squawk at it,” my daughter said, “to say ‘it’s pretty,’ to ask its name,” (which it had none in order to reinforce the eagle’s status as a wild animal, not a pet).

ACES Beloved Golden Eagle of 30 years

When Frisco Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation heard of the death of ACE’s golden eagle, it offered the eagle it had managed to repair, except for the bird’s desiccated flight feathers, necessitating life-long protective care. Acting under the watchful eye and good graces of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, my daughter loaded a wooden box with air holes into her truck in a small town in Colorado. And because two organizations carefully adhered to a protection act passed in 1940 to prevent the needless and unlawful harm or killing of even one eagle, a law generations of us have proudly grown up with, a golden eagle waiting in the half-dark of that box reached its new “mew,” its new home, where a rabbit and open skies beyond the wire mesh and a thousand new children awaited it.

The book I hold in my hands is a beautiful book, hard-bound in a crosshatch pattern of feathers (why do I have a Kindle?), its inside cover bearing the faint small-boy penciling of my husband’s name. In this popular edition, Audubon’s golden eagle tilts upward, open-beaked, carrying a white hare in its talons over rock and sea. “Wandering in winter to sea level,” the caption reads.

Audubon’s picture seems to capture the grand wilderness in the bird,  but I would be remiss not to mention that Audubon himself was responsible for the death of thousands of birds, using wires and threads to tie the bodies of the birds he killed into “life-like” positions for his drawings, a fate, I’m sad to say, that the golden eagle he drew did not escape.

Shocking? Yes. Barbaric?

Almost as much as the flimflamming of a word.

Golden Eagle Illustration from Audubon's Birds of America

Pre-Orders and the Journey of a Book in a Year of Yes

cover of slow arrow with description of book

Perhaps it’s the few new minutes of light since Winter Solstice or the still days between the end of Christmas and the hopes of a new year. Or just simply being stuck in bed with a lousy cold. But today seemed like the perfect one to begin the next stage of this long journey I’ve been on, the journey of the book in a year of yes.

I don’t even remember when I first heard about “the year of the yes” or when I first thought to turn monthly environmental columns I’d written into a collection of essays that braided together what I’d learned of this land at 9600 feet with what I’d learned that first year my 85 year-old mother came, here, to be with me.

I do remember describing it, haltingly, at a lunch for a writer being hosted by Regis’s Mile Hi MFA program. “Twelve months . . . twelve essays . . .one year . . .one book,” the writer said. “Perfect.”

But that was years ago. How did I know how much work it would be to find the metaphoric connections between the familial and the environmental that spoke to me, that linked beauty and wonder and the real environmental issues of this 40 acre microcosm I love with the journey of a woman I love, waiting to end this life, who asked me to share these moments with her?

I gave up. Often.

But then I read–again, I curse the fallibility of memory and my poor Internet search techniques–about a writer, and I think she was profiled in Poets and Writers, who did one of those famous years of the “yes.”

“Yes” to everything. Yes to finishing the book. Yes to sending the book out.

The hot spots were there, as I always tell my students. I just had to seek them out in the language: the carbon fossil images of leafs we found at a Florissant Fossil Quarry entwined with the images of my father’s face pressed against the glass in a hospital ward; skyglow and luminescence and the warmth of bodies here and no longer here; gravitational waves and the fears of a husband strapped to a heart monitor.

I remember when Natasha Trethewey, before she became Poet Laureate, visited Ashland University’s MFA program and how she described writing for the buried narrative beyond the historical marker. I realized that even within what seems like sometimes the desolation of these high mountain meadows I wander is the buried narrative of these places that connect history and nature and family: Indian princesses bewailing lost lovers, elk sunk to their bellies in a stoppered creek, stone trees and extinct volcanoes and mother lodes and streets of gold and Keats amid 400 billion stars.

When, finally, I thought I could write no more, that I was done (of course, as I found out in the editing and proofing stage, I wasn’t!), I thought of one more “Yes” to punctuate the “Done”: send it out, right then, to just one place before the long slog of agent searches and editor letters and marketing plans and submission spreadsheets.

I’ll give it a year, I thought.

So, with that “yes” in mind, that metaphorical period penciled in at the end of my manuscript, I looked up what place or two I could find on the Poets & Writers database on Small Presses . And there was Saddle Road Press with its stated editorial focus: “For 2019 we are seeking poetry and hybrid prose/poetry collections and collections of short stories or lyric essays.” Lyric essays? Okay.

And eight days later, this:

Dear Kathryn Winograd, 

We love “Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children” and would like to publish it. Thank you for giving us the opportunity! 

We’ll be contacting you soon about what happens next. In the meantime, congratulations on your wonderful book! 

Ruth Thompson 
Saddle Road Press 

Lesson learned from this journey? Believe. Find what speaks to you. Say, “Yes.”

sheep slippers
From Sick at Home Kathy

Convergences of Poetry and Prose: In the Light of Ocean Vuong and Michael Steinberg

Book cover for On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

I was in the Florida Keys, reading the poet Ocean Vuong’s genre-blurring novel, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous, off my Kindle when the first social media posting of Michael Steinberg’s death appeared in my Earthlink. Michael, writer and founding editor of the literary journal, The Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, and I had just emailed each other a couple months before because, as all the beautiful tributes to Michael’s generosity attest to, he had kindly agreed to write a blurb for my upcoming book, Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children, despite his upcoming eye surgery, asking only that I send my manuscript in large script. I did not realize then how serious his eye condition was, nor to what discovery it would, so sadly, so soon, lead.  

But even before I heard about Michael’s death, Vuong’s novel, a soaring and lyrical tour de force about Little Dog and his family of refugees from Vietnam, had me thinking about the convergence of poetry and prose and what Michael had written to me a few years ago when I asked him to be part of an AWP presentation on the lyric essay.

The essay (and/or memoir), Michael wrote, is the story of one’s thinking, the revelation of consciousness. Except for those essayists who reflexively use poetic elements and   language in their work, these are missing from most of the MFA work I’m seeing—even the very good ones.

 Michael’s words articulated for me what I could feel was missing in some of my MFA students’ creative nonfiction work: that craft of poetry that so often leads to the most beautiful and revelatory memoir-writing.

Reading On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous, even the title resplendent with poetry, I realized how much this novel/memoir/poem that Vuong describes as “grounded in truth but realized by the imagination,” could teach my students about the graces of poetry in creative nonfiction.

“Poets have been there,” Vuong says in his recent profile in Poets and Writers, “and thrived with the sentence and the paragraph.”

First, most simply, I would tell my students, there is the utter beauty of imagery to “show the world new,” a maxim taught about poetry even to children: “The crickets ignited across the low shifting grass around the barn.  Turning to him, I felt their serrated legs through the floor beneath us as I said his name, full and long; I said it so quiet the syllables never survived my mouth. I drew closer, toward the wet salted heat of his cheek.” How do we separate now the pulsing of love from the pulsing of cricket?

Second, the juxtaposition of image with image can sometimes fire into being emotion and thought we can only intuit (and, here, too, because I know I could not help myself from saying, what Miller and Paola in Tell it Slant calls “Gathering the Threads of History,” the beautiful weaving of the personal and public self) :

It was the summer of 2003, which meant Bush had already declared war on Iraq, citing weapons of mass destruction that never materialized, when the Black Eyed Peas’ “Where is the Love?” played on every radio station but especially on PWR 98.6, and you could hear the song from nearly every car on the block if you slept with the windows pen, its beats punctuated by the sound of beer bottles bursting on the basketball court across the street, the crackheads lobbying empties up in the sky, just to see how the streetlights make broken things seem touched by magic. . .

Do you see how the singular world of the self can show itself to be a morass of the incongruent, of the fantastical, the undefinable?

And, third, I would show my students what Vuong teaches us most thoroughly, most beautifully, the use of metaphor– vehicle of that “revelation of consciousness” that Michael understood was most essential, so often missing, from the prose of the essay and the memoir.  On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous is awash in metaphor, but here are two small examples among so many.

The bullies on a school bus, finally gone, who have slapped Little Dog into speaking English—“That’s a good little bitch,” they say–Little Dog stares at the flashing shoes his mother bought him, kicking them until they “erupted with silent flares: the world’s smallest ambulances, going nowhere.” End of scene. Metaphor in its singular precision.

And, next, the extended metaphor: hardest, best. Vuong weaves monarch butterflies throughout the story of Little Dog’s mother, wounded refugee from Vietnam: the female monarch butterfly flying south, dispersing eggs, which will burst into future generations of butterflies that will only make the return trip the mother began.

“Even history has more than one thread, each thread a story of division,” Vuong writes, the image of the monarchs culminating in their “fleeing not winter but  the napalm clouds of [the mother’s] childhood in Vietnam . . . like debris that kept blowing, for thousands of miles” so that “you can no longer fathom the explosion they came from, only a family of butterflies floating in clean, cool air, their wings finally, after so many conflagrations, fireproof.”

Sometimes, I think, even in Florida, sitting in a fair breeze gone cold, at the cusp of a canal where manatee wallow, you can find an intersection of truth: grace and grief, poetry and prose conjoined.

“I’m not a journalist,” Vuong says. “I’m an artist.”

Michael Steinberg, writer, friend, mentor, truth-teller to so many, affirmed, in so many ways, once more.

Still Frozen: Olaf, Oates, and Morality in Creative Nonfiction

best american essay book cover

As I girded myself at the end of Thanksgiving for this week’s news cycle of impeachment shockers and “presidential” deflections, I started thinking about the five-year-old who had been seated two seats away from me at the matinee showing of Frozen II and of the anthology edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Best American Essays of the Century, that I was in the midst of reading.  

Both left me weepy.

In the wake of, literally, years now of watching the values and morals—those good old human values, forget just American, of honesty, integrity, inclusivity, respect, honor, kindness, empathy, generosity, (the list goes on)—which I had been taught as a child, wrecked, dumped, scorned, annihilated, (the list goes on), I am feeling, frankly, fragile.  

 Give me any glimmer of soul and I am sent to tears, even the crystalline one of a rotund, buck-toothed snowman who extemporizes on everything, including the cucumber (really?) much to the glee of the five-year-old who bounced from her seat. “Cucumber,” she chortled. “Cucumber!” —Disney apparently once more successful in mining the mysterious depths of childhood humor.

I, on the other hand, grew glummer as cartoon characters danced through choruses of “just do the next right thing” and contemplated in their own big-eyed, silly ways the unbalanced porcelain (come on, Disney!)  world that buffeted them. No real solace to be found in an animated world that embellishes what I know now, in the grown-up world, has the weight and density of a pixel.  

Enter the Best American Essays of the Century, edited by Joyce Carol Oates. “Here,” Oates says, “is a history of America told in many voices.”  Old friends– Twain, Hurston, Thurber, Wright, Porter, McCarthy, Carson, Walker, Baldwin, Momaday, Angelou, Kingston, Rodriguez, Manchester, Ozick, and Gould, (the list goes on)– gathered together into one volume. 

“The more we know of history of both the natural and the civilized worlds,” Oates says in her introduction, “the more we understand that our tangled lives are ever evolving.” And the more I understand why it’s these tangled, complex souls, sifting through the dust and dirt of a real world, that I have learned to know and love.  

I read the story of a man, a “deformed man,” Randolph Bourne calls himself, and I understand the struggle to live in grace and dignity in 1911 . . . in 2019.  I follow Alice Walker in her search for the grave of Zora Neale Hurston and we find the field of shameful weeds, Walker’s foot poised in a sunken unmarked hole. “Doesn’t this look like a grave to you?” she asks.  I walk the shoreline’s “Marginal World” with Rachel Carson amid spiral shells and ghost crabs and discover in this world of “exquisite beauty” the evidence of “continuing creation” and the “relentless drive of life.”  I stand on the frontline of a war, the “Bloodiest Battle of All,” William Manchester calls it, in Okinawa where 4000 men died, a place soaked in blood and shit where my father will be shipped to six years later to finish out his medical service, and where the shinbone of a fallen comrade blown to bits impales Manchester, what he will carry the rest of his life: “Nations may make peace. It is harder for fighting men.”  

Here, in these essays, in creative nonfiction, I find the human weight and depth of soul I need: vulnerable and searching, complex and world-wise (the list goes on) and, sometimes, world-weary.

But moral. And tear-worthy.  

Difficult Grace: Michael Chabon’s essay, “Final Frontier,” and the Balance of Truth and Fathers (and Mothers) in CNF

picture of Chabon essay from The New Yorker

Regis Mile High MFA has asked me to pull together a large lecture hall seminar for our next residency on the ethics of creative nonfiction.  I’m calling it, “ truth, TRUTH, my story, your story: The Ethics of (Creative) (Non) fiction.” As I scroll through the famous infamies of creative “non-truths” in the past decades—James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea to name the most web-notorious—I realize that my students don’t worry so much over the truthfulness of their stories as they do over their own capacities to hurt (or enrage) those close to them– good, bad, and/or ugly–who appear in the often painful memories these students find themselves compelled to write.

As  a poet, I thought nothing of truth or ethics. The poet Richard Hugo declared what we poets already knew: “You owe reality nothing and the truth about your feelings everything.” But then I wrote my first creative nonfiction book, Phantom Canyon: Essays of Reclamation, about a subject I had never broached with my family since the long decades past when my mother and father took me to testify in court against the stranger who assaulted me by the side of a graveyard. Each time afterward, they would stop off at the local ice cream parlor with me, in hopes, I think now, of returning me to the normalcy of childhood through a chocolate chip sundae, even after that last day in court when the judge read the verdict and the mother of the rapist half-collapsed at the end of the long court bench within reach of me, weeping to her son, “You said you didn’t do it,” as the police led her nineteen-year-old, convicted and sentenced, down the aisle between us. 

This week, Michael Chabon’s essay in The New Yorker, “ The Final Frontier,” offers a beautiful lesson on how one narrator, moved beyond malice or bitterness to the “implacable logic of mercy,” can meditate, without indictment,  on the father who abandoned him forty-four years ago.   His father near death, Chabon sits bedside in the ICU, working on a script for “Star Trek: Picard.”  His meditation moves between the Star Trek script he is writing, the imaginary conversation he is having with his father over the script, and the present moments of his father dying. It is in that weaving and Chabon’s careful balancing of language that Chabon teaches us how we can work with the fraught material we are given. Star Trek, especially those episodes with Mr. Spock, that Chabon and his father knew in detail, are the genesis for a metaphor that allows Chabon to both embrace and distance himself from a relationship so complex that Chabon can quietly call his father “an acquaintance of fifty-five years,” without alarming his readers. Halfway through Chabon’s recitation on Spock and Star Trek, Chabon says to his father, whom he will shortly try to “mind-meld” with, “I love Mr. Spock because he reminds me of you.”

That their relationship was fraught is without doubt, but what could so easily be the accusations of a son against a father he has been grieving the loss of since he was a twelve year old boy is filtered by Chabon through benevolent truisms on human frailty, as if said by some all-seeing sage, or fellow Vulcan, above the earthly fray: “the silence that prevailed between fathers and sons, as profound and mysterious as the silence of elevators” and  “the father I had loved so imperfectly, and by whom I had been so imperfectly loved.” Chabon ends his essay in that schism of imperfect love: an abandoned child’s long-lived yearning for a father and that same child’s long wounding, still “trapped in the broken elevator of insomnia.”

Just as my students fear will happen to them, as the publishing date drew near for Phantom Canyon, I fretted over telling my mother what the book was about—she had yet to ask me. Finally, on a walk, I told her with as few words as I could, giving her a preview copy, what I should have given her sooner, I think now, to read.  I waited, imagining my mother bent over her magnifying glass reading my words, her not knowing the story of the long aftermath that had silenced me for too long. I wrote of the morning when she asked me why I was no longer her “sunshine,” and how I was so stunned from what she did not know that I could not speak. I wrote of the evening when she asked my father, what I overheard from outside the kitchen window where I had been crying, when I would finally “get over it.” I wrote of other things, too. Words true. She called and I waited, a poet too painfully aware by then of creative nonfiction’s abysses, but not yet fully aware of the grace of mind-melds and faraway galaxies.  

“Kathy,” my mother said, “the book is beautiful, even the hard parts” –our conversation then, I am still thankful, not imagined, but real.   

Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children Begins the Road to Publication

book cover for Slow Arrow

Saddle Road Press (so happy I went with this press) has sent Slow Arrow off to  Lightning Source for our first Proof Copy. Thank you to Steve Harvey, Laura Julier, Tom Larson, Robert Root, and Michael Steinberg for their beautiful beautiful book blurbs.