Writers Who Smoke

Like many others, I was very saddened yesterday to learn about Dana Reeve’s death. There’s a lot behind my reaction, and I’m not going to delve into it all. But part of it is definitely related to the fact that I’ve lost a loved one to this disease, and I know how terribly its victims suffer, however bravely.

Since my aunt’s illness–she died almost exactly ten years ago–I’ve been a rabid anti-smoker. Yes, it’s true that even non-smokers (like Dana Reeve) are diagnosed with this cancer every year. But the truth remains that the vast majority of lung cancer cases (80%-90%) are among smokers. Smoking is the single most preventable risk factor for the disease. And of the non-smokers who fall victim to it, experts agree that secondary smoke inhalation (Dana Reeve’s work as a singer brought her into many smoke-suffused environments) may well be a cause.

At my MFA program, I earned something of a reputation for both pleading with others not to smoke, and for staying away from the clusters of “smoking writers” gathered in bars and elsewhere. Frankly, this behavior isolated me from a lot of conversations and socializing. Good. Having watched my aunt prepare to leave her three then-twentysomething children–and now watching all her grandchildren grow up without their grandmother–I was also offended by the hypocrisy of the writers who would wax eloquent to (childless) me about how much their children mattered to them and the joys of parenting. I often wanted to tell them: “If you want to see your children grow up–and spare them what my cousins went through tending their mother on her deathbed–put out that damn cigarette.”

In Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees (an absolutely wonderful book about writing and publishing), we read that “the only place you’re likely to find more alcoholics than an AA meeting is a writing program.” She may be joking, but it’s also highly probable, judging merely from the drinking that also went on in my MFA program. But I wonder about lung cancer cases among writers, too. I can’t believe that writers are not overrepresented here. And now that we’re realizing that secondary smoke can be so harmful, I have to wonder about lung cancer cases among those writers live with, too.

I can’t make others quit smoking (I’ve tried, and in one case am still trying, if in a less nagging manner), but I can try to protect myself from their secondary smoke.

When I began attending the annual conferences of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), I was stunned by how pervasive the smoking was. I could barely spend more than five minutes in one of the conference hotel bars or restaurants without becoming nauseated.

Last year, the conference was held in Vancouver, and the smokers had to take it outside. While I’m skipping this year’s conference, I’m truly happy to know that it’s taking place in Austin, Texas, which recently enacted a ban on smoking in public places as well.

I hope AWP will continue to hold its conferences in cities that look out for the health of their citizens and tourists. Yes, the writers who smoke may be inconvenienced a bit. I wish the audiences who went to hear Dana Reeve sing had been similarly inconvenienced.

Michael and Marylee Fairbanks International Fellowship for African and Caribbean Writers

This is a fellowship a practicing writer told me about last year; another one just reminded me that this year’s application deadline is coming up (on April 1), so I thought a post would be a good idea.

The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Fairbanks Fellowship supports a writer living in Africa or the Caribbean to attend the Conference (which is held in Vermont). “Poets, fiction, and creative nonfiction writers who have published at least one but not more than two books in English within the last four years are eligible.” The fellowship includes the Conference fee plus travel expenses. Interested applicants can find out more and download the required forms here. NO APPLICATION FEE.

(Note that financial aid applications for other Conference scholarships/awards must be submitted earlier [March 1].)

Lessons Learned from the Nieman Narrative Nonfiction Conference (III)

OK. Here are my final thoughts (for the moment) about something I gleaned from the conference. (I know I promised a conference summary in the next newsletter, but I’d rather devote the space to the words and wisdom of a fantastic interviewee. Watch the newsletter for the interview!)

This last lesson actually returns to an issue highlighted in a previous post, which quoted Lee Gutkind’s reminder that “There are two types of stories. One type is one’s own story. The other type is telling the stories of others.”

As I’ve said before, I’ve encountered many creative nonfiction writers who seem to believe that the genre is synonymous with–and limited to–memoir. Looking outward is far from the point–interpreting one’s own experience is.

So it was interesting to find at this conference–attended by so many practicing newspaper and magazine journalists–that some people focus too much on the opposite and really have to learn how to bring their own narrative, first-person voice into a work of nonfiction. They know how to “report” on other people, but they may need to slow down and craft other characters: themselves.

Still, here’s the overall message: there’s room for everyone at the narrative table.

Lessons Learned from the Nieman Narrative Nonfiction Conference (II)

Here’s a lesson learned: pay close attention to any conference that offers a “First Pages” session. The Nieman Narrative Nonfiction Conference regularly offers this kind of session, and according to Sarah Wernick (who moderated Sunday morning’s session), it’s something borrowed from children’s writers’ conferences.

This is how it worked on Sunday. Attendees who planned to attend the session were invited to submit (in advance) the first pages from their narrative nonfiction projects. At the session eleven such first pages were read aloud (by readers specially present for the job–the pages were kept anonymous). After each page was read, the panel critiqued it. And the panel included two agents and two editors.

Hearing specific comments from each of the panelists on other people’s work proved infinitely more valuable than any individual yet generic “this isn’t for us…hope it finds a home with another agent/publisher” I’ve received to date.

If you want more details about this First Pages session (or maybe some guidance on how you might run a similar session at a conference yourself), click here.

Lessons Learned from the Nieman Narrative Nonfiction Conference (I)

I have just returned from the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center and the 2005 Nieman Narrative Nonfiction Conference, and I’ll be happy to tell you about some things I learned in this and subsequent posts (and you can look forward to a more coherent summary in the next Practicing Writer newsletter, too).

Here’s the first piece of news:

If you’re one of the many readers (and writers) who mourned the passing of DoubleTake you’ll no doubt be pleased to discover that the magazine is back. Represented by its new editors at the conference, DoubleTake/Points of Entry is “the marriage of a magazine (DoubleTake—quarterly from 1995-2003) that featured narrative stories, essays and narrative/documentary photography grounded in the liberal arts, and an academic journal (Points of Entry: Cross-Currents in Storytelling—annual 2003-2005) that featured narrative and professional/scholarly essays about narrative writing.”

Now published bi-annually from its offices in the English department at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, the magazine also has an online home here. That’s where you can learn more about current content and submission guidelines. (The only bad news here is financial: the magazine is pretty expensive [a single copy costs $15; an individual subscription is $25, which provides two issues], and it’s not paying its contributors.)

A Basic Definition of Creative Nonfiction

Another nugget from the MediaBistro Toolbox, this time a basic explanation of creative nonfiction courtesy of Lee Gutkind.

My favorite part of his statement is this:

“And there are two types of stories. One type is one’s own story. The other type is telling the stories of others.”

Got that? Sometimes it seems to me that some writers believe “creative nonfiction” is synonymous with (and limited to) “memoir.” It isn’t! Back in the day some of us learned about “creative nonfiction” as “literary journalism.” Sure, there are plenty of wonderful memoirs/first-person essays out there, and I certainly enjoy reading them. But please, let’s not forget that there’s more to creative nonfiction than memoir.

Look to hear more about nonfiction (specifically, “narrative nonfiction”) from me in a few days. I’m volunteering at the 2005 Nieman Narrative Conference in Boston. I spent four hours last night preparing folders, and there’s another folder-preparation session in store for me before I get to the actual event on Friday. But it’s all going to be worth it–what a line-up they’ve got….