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Saturday, November 2, 2013

Things I Know Now I Wish I'd Known Then: Jessica Handler

Each month a writer is invited to hold forth on the above topic.  This month it's Jessica Handler, the author of the forthcoming Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief available in December from St. Martins Press. Her first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (Public Affairs, 2009) is one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read.” Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Drunken Boat,Brevity, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and More Magazine. Honors include residencies at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, a 2010 Emerging Writer Fellowship from The Writers Center, the 2009 Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellowship, and special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize. She teaches creative writing and screenwriting in Atlanta and elsewhere. You can find her online at www.jessicahandler.com

Writing a memoir, for me, turned out to be something like learning to wear my skin in a different way. Not inside-out as much as shaken out, given a good airing, and resized. My skin’s more comfortable on me now. But  it turns out that the advice I’ve read – and you have too – about each book being different is true. Writing Invisible Sisters wasn’t at all like writing Braving the Fire. This is true of the third book, too (and that’s all I’m saying about it) as I dig away at shaping the story. Yes, it’s still me at the keyboard, in the same space in my house, on another iteration of the same laptop. But each new book requires some new way of seeing the world, derived from the way my skin – and my mind and heart – fit me as I write.

I kind of enjoy that.

Seeing my first book out there in the world – on bookstore shelves, in someone’s lap in a dentist’s waiting room (!) – is flat-out thrilling.

Those readers are holding my life in their hands. I trust them to treat it well.

People talk to me about my books and then they tell me things that surprise them. I’m glad. They’re really telling themselves these things, sometimes for the first time.

I take pictures of my book out there in the world. I take pictures of it end-capped in bookstores, and being held open to be signed, and of the little signs in bookstore windows announcing my reading.

Learn what end-capping is.

Always buy something at an independent bookstore. If it’s not a book (and there’s got to be a book there I haven’t read yet or really love and want to give to someone) get note cards, a coffee mug, or a t-shirt. Someone needs a gift, including the independent bookstore!

Book club visits are really fun. A like-minded stranger invites me into their home to talk with them and their friends about an interest we all share – the book! 

Have nutrition bars in the car. I will definitely get stuck in traffic on the way to book club visits or in-store readings. 

Read work aloud in draft. Really.

Learn to use “track changes .”

There’s a one-month free trial subscription to the Chicago Manual of Style. Deploy that privilege before submitting  manuscript to editor. Most houses use CMS.

It’s extraordinarily detailed. There’s a lesson to be had somewhere.

Learn to write on planes.

I didn’t know then how rewarded I would feel telling someone “I’m a writer” when asked what I do for a living.  I didn’t know that I would still feel that it’s a little strange in a “yes it really is a job” kind of way to say so.

I knew all along that I’d kind of enjoy that.

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