About Parenting How I Got That Story

How I Got That Story: Corbin Lewars, memoir

In this special issue, How I Got That Story presents, un-edited and unstoppable, the ‘zinster, blogger, writing mentor, and now memoirist, Seattle’s own … Corbin Lewars!!!

Ms. Lewars reads Tuesday, May 5, 7:00pm at Richard Hugo House as part of  David Schamder’s She Said: Women’s Lives in Poetry and Prose. And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming. Corbin:

  • Authored Creating a Life: The Memoir of a Writer and Mom in the Making;
  • Blogs at Reality Mom;
  • Four times a year, publishes a ‘zine of the same name.
  • Other work published in Hip Mama, Midwifery Today, and Mamaphonic

What did you learn most, in the process of building toward then publishing your first book?

Writing books and/or articles is usually the easy part for me. I rarely suffer from writer’s block, so the main barrier to writing has always been time. So once I have something complete, it is agonizing for me to have to wait to hear from other people. And becoming published has been years of me waiting to feel validated as a writer by finding an agent and having articles published. And even once I had an agent and an editor for my book and several pieces published, I thought I could relax and finally stop waiting because I had “made it.” But then I started another memoir and the waiting process started all over again. Becoming a writer has taught me more about patience than years of meditation ever could.

The other big lesson occurred when I agreed to publish my book with a small press rather than hold out for a larger press. Again, this probably has a lot to do with I was tired of waiting, but Ariel Gore, my mentor at the time, told me that her experiences with small presses were usually far better and less riddled with bullshit that with larger presses. She also said that as a new author, the hand-holding and attention I would receive with a small press would be more worthwhile than the advance a larger press could offer. So I let go of the dream of the 6 figure advance and signed a contract with Catalyst Book Press.


Given your current success, what would you say was your tipping point?

Ever since I was a little girl I dreamed about being a writer. But dreaming about writing is relatively easy compared to taking the leap of faith to actually being one. Several tipping points occurred along the way. In 2001, I quit my steady, benefits and vacations paid, yet extremely boring job and started freelancing as an editor and writer. I taught writing, was the editor of Verve (folded a year later, but was fabulous while it lasted), and basically took any paying job that involved writing so I could have the time and energy for my own writing. Two years later, I hired Waverly Fitzgerald as my coach to help me complete a book proposal. Every time I met Waverly at Victrola she called me a writer and I started to believe it myself.

In October of 2005, on the day my daughter was born, I  signed a contract with my agent and thought, “Ahh, now I can relax because my book will be on the shelves of Barnes and Noble any day now.”

Three years later and two books later, I am still nowhere near the shelves of Barnes and Noble. Ariel, once again offered her sage advice and said, “You’ve fulfilled your side of the contract by writing the books, your agent didn’t fulfill her side by selling them, you need to find a new agent.” I followed her advice, but rather than looking for another agent, I started submitting my memoir to various small presses. Catalyst responded immediately and I signed a contract with them a couple of weeks later.

A  week later I arranged a literary event with 11 other writers at Hugo House and performed my first reading to a large audience without barfing. The following week I was interviewed on the radio and am finally able to relax into the knowledge that yes, this will continue to be difficult, but yes I will survive as a writer and no, I won’t have to ever sling cocktails again.

How many pieces do you have out for consideration at any given time?

While querying agents, I tend to do them in batches of 5 or so. Articles I only submit to one place at a time. When submitting my books to large presses, my agent would submit 5 or so at a time; but I would only query one small press at a time.

When you started writing, what were your top three DREAM PUBLICATIONS?

I always imagined that Creating a Life would be published by Seal Press. (Brooke emailed me they are out of the momoir business, so that didn’t happen)
My fiction, Swings, and current memoir, My Year of Pleasures, I want to be published by any large press because I guess I never did give up the dream of the big advance and a publicist to help with promotion. For my essays I wanted to be published in Hip Mama and Mothering (which I have been) and the ultimate, The Sun.

List your current DREAM PUBS.

Anyone who pays. :)

Tell me about your writing life, and where applicable, your life-life.

For six years, I was forced to be a naptime writer. I have two young children and I’ve written three books and many essays all during those blissful, but short moments. Or I write on Sundays, while they chase each other with scissors, or every once in a while late at night, but it’s hard to come down from that.

Last year, my daughter entered preschool and I separated from my husband, so I was able to luxuriate in weekends to myself to write (and play), and a couple of six hour intervals of uninterrupted time to work, which has helped my writing improve and be less scattered.

The biggest hurdle I hear my clients complain about is, “I don’t have time to write” Being a stay at home mom and trying to run my own editing business while also trying to publish books allows me the authority to say, “B*##$%!+.” Make the time.

About Writing

Seeking: resonant creative nonfiction

MC over in Freemont does me another solid by asking: when writing creative nonfiction that reflects some aspect of your own life, how do you maintain enough distance from deeply personal nature of the subject so that you can write about it in a way that resonates with a wider audience?

Great question. Lee Gutkind over at CNF (the magazine, not the movement) looks for exactly that. “How to,” however, applies to any writing that resonates beyond a gripping plot or captivating voice.

First, the work has to mature. The chances of coming up with something resonant are directly proportional to the amount of time spent in revision. A dedication to revision, hours and hours of it, separates those who write (an excellent category, by the way) from writers who publish.

Secondly, the writer has to mature. I suppose you could create for the purposes of the piece a maturity you may not have to date achieved. Seems like it would be faster and easier just to mature. At least enough time needs to pass that that horror or joy or sheer tumult resolves to the point where you can write without pathos or self-absorption. Critics label such undertakings “sentimental.” Kiss o’ death.

Specific to creative nonfiction: the writer is an acknowledged element of the piece, not hidden by the mask of fiction or the alleged neutrality of journalism. My best work comes when I explore a topic from my own, flawed expereince (without descending into pathos or self-absorption).

Truman Capote

A writer can’t control whether or not the work will cause readers to see themselves in the context of the work and subsequently learn something, perhaps about themselves; or: “resonate”. To get back to answering the question, in the interest of resonating with the reader, don’t. Just tell your story as clearly and as beautifully as you are able, in as few words as possible.

Thanks, MC.

About Publishing

What is creative nonfiction and what is memoir?

MC over in Freemont writes: Much of your work would be considered creative nonfiction. Is there a difference between creative nonfiction and memoir?

Nope, not when writing. Technically, I suppose you could argue that creative nonfiction (CNF) is a form of journalism that can include an element of reportage that is not necessarily a part of memoir. All this goes out the window when we move the dial to selling (okay,okay: publishing) your work.

In general, newspaper and newspaper-ish editors hate the very phrase “creative nonfiction”. Those editors don’t look fondly on memoir, either, but they love a good story. So sell them a story.

Certain literary magazines don’t like the term CNF, but are happy to receive “literary nonfiction’ or “narrative nonfiction” or an essay. Or short memoir, for goodness sake. You can see why hair-splitting the subtle subdivisions will distract a writer from writing. A writer who enjoys splitting along those lines is a great person to have as a writing peer. Give ‘em a stack of literary magazines and ask her or him to tell you what to call your submission. You’ll get fewer rejections.

If I were a gambling gal, I would bet the deed to mah plantation that most readers are not thoroughly clear about the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Not because they are dumb. Because they care more about the story than they do about artificially created categories. As an industry, we have to arrange material in such a way that readers can find it. That is all the importance categories such as creative nonfiction and memoir should have.

My non-fiction To Do list:

  • The New York Times Sunday Styles section
  • Tin House
  • Creative Nonfiction (again)
  • Mid-American Review (read my How I Got That Story interview with Mid-Am’s editor, Michael Czyzniejewski. At the very least, this post will tell you how to pronounce his last name.)