Dear Advice Person Lady: Advice for Writers

Writers are neurotic. Are we more neurotic than other artists? Definitely. And it’s time we had our own advice column. A Dear Abby for our literary breakdowns. And if I have to volunteer to be that person, so be it. The letters have been pouring in—which is weird, because how did you know I was going to do this?—and here they are.

Dear Advice Person Lady:
I’m in an MFA program, and there’s this famous writer I kind of have a huge crush on. I’ve never met him, but he’s coming to campus next week, and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to control myself around him. I mean, he’s not only talented, but he’s sooo beautiful. How do I keep from acting like an idiot?


Dear Smitten:
Oh, honey. I promise he’s not as attractive as his author photo. Like, I’ll bet you six hundred bucks. Have you seriously not met a writer before? Problem solved.



Dear Advice Person Lady,
An interviewer said she loved my book, but all the questions she sent me were based on the acknowledgments at the back of the book. And the questions were stupid—she clearly hadn’t read it. When I write back, can I say something snarky like “I hope you do enjoy the book if and when you get a chance to read it”?

AnnoyedContinue Reading

Discovering Milton Resnick


Photo courtesy of Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation.

Milton Resnick (1917—2004), was one of the most articulate and interesting of the abstract expressionists. I knew his work, but this past summer I discovered his personal history through a recently completed manuscript, Milton Resnick: Painter in the Age of Painting, by Geoffrey Dorfman, author of the well-received, Out of the Picture: Milton Resnick and the New York School. The narrative contains transcriptions of interviews about the lives of artists of that period. Dorfman’s and Resnick’s sensibilities complement each other perfectly. As Dorfman notes, “There are two voices running through this book: the artist’s and my own.” And the wisdom found here teaches lessons that apply across all the arts.

Resnick was an indefatigable artist, leaving behind ten thousand works on paper and canvas. His paintings are held in the Smithsonian, the National Gallery, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others. He was also an energetic storyteller, relating anecdotes about those he knew, including Willem De Kooning, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock. Even his stories about painters who failed or disappeared are riveting. Resnick always keeps his focus on how art is made, what an artist must do to survive, and the struggle to maintain integrity.

What I love about this book is the humor and wit that runs through even the most dire accounts. Dorfman’s record of Resnick’s life is far from hagiography—after all, Dorfman knew Resnick well, and incorporates his failures as well as his triumphs. For instance, Resnick, we learn, “was certainly no art teacher.” One of his painter friends said, “Whenever I brought a problem to Milton, he made it vaster.”Continue Reading

I Have a Favor to Ask


Is there anything more head-smackingly awkward than asking favors of other writers? You might never have experienced writer’s block in your life, but sit down to compose a 200-word email to the friend you need something from, and find yourself twelve hours later with nothing but a vacuumed carpet.

And yet it’s totally necessary. And anyone you’re writing to has definitely been there, wondering how they could possibly ask something so huge from such a busy person, and wishing they’d been to that one magical conference that would have hooked them up with all the contacts and favors ever. You know, the one everyone else went to.

Lucky for you, I’m here to help. Simply use the following form, and you’ll never be pen-tied again.Continue Reading

Sounds Like Your Next Story!


SOUNDS LIKE YOUR NEXT STORY!: a short play with infinite scenes.

Well-Meaning FRIENDs and FAMILY


Lights up on the WRITER and a FRIEND, having coffee.

WRITER: I forgot to tell you about the date. The guy literally asked the bartender out right in front of me, and so—

FRIEND: Hey, at least you could get a great short story out of that! You could give him a really stupid name!

WRITER: Ha, yeah. Well.Continue Reading

Harper Lee and the Politics of Genius in Today’s Age

Nelle_Harper_LeeThe intensity of the reaction to news of beloved author Harper Lee publishing a sequel to her masterpiece, To Kill A Mockingbird, is ironic, given the very reasons we thought we’d never see this day come: Lee often proclaimed that her first book had said all she wanted to say, and that she was exhausted by the fame that came with it. She is reputedly just as reclusive as Boo Radley.

It’s curious how the mythology of the hermit writer both backfires against the author and ignites fervor in readers (and, therefore, puts money in publisher’s pockets). After this announcement, journalists flocked to Alabama, trying to weasel information out of Lee’s neighbors and her caretakers at the nursing home. Meanwhile, her books rocketed to the #1 and #2 slots on Amazon’s Best Sellers list–months before Go Set a Watchmen’s scheduled release.

In a popular TED talk, given after the intense commercial success of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert calls for readers to stop idolizing writers as geniuses and therefore turning on them when they don’t live up to past performances. Why not, she says, instead consider that we all have geniuses that visit us, not unlike the mythological muse? She cites the pressure of following up successful literary publications as potential reasons for why many writers succumb to the stereotype of the suffering, alcoholic, depressed, suicidal artist—and for her own writer’s block (which she has since conquered with Committed and The Signature of All Things).Continue Reading

Giving, Not Taking: Expectations of Author Interactions

hal blockIn 2009, I was at the annual AWP conference in Chicago, heading into a panel session about flash fiction. Coming out of the room from the last session was Audrey Niffenegger who, even without her name tag, would have been distinguishable by her auburn hair.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Did you write The Time Traveler’s Wife?

“I did,” she said.

“I just wanted to thank you,” I said.

She thanked me for saying that, and then excused herself, saying she had to run to another meeting.

“Oh, that’s okay,” I told her. “That’s all I wanted to say.”Continue Reading

Up-and-Coming: A Look at Emerging Authors from South Asia

friday 2Literary luminaries like Salman Rushdie (The Satanic Verses) and Kamila Shamsie (A God in Every Stone) have dominated the South Asian writing landscape, but there are more heavyweights who merit recognition. The following authors offer a glimpse of contemporary English writing emerging in the subcontinent.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Why Lena Dunham’s New Book is Worth $3.5 Million

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena DunhamWhen I talk to a new potential client, one of the things we go over is potential advances. Most nonfiction writers get between $25,000 and $75,000; fiction writers, a fraction of that. Everyone who gets more than that did something remarkable to get there.

During this conversation, many writers have joked to me that they’re hoping for Lena Dunham money. Dunham, the driving force behind the show Girls on HBO, received a reported $3.5 million dollars for her book, Not That Kind of Girl. The advance made headlines, and so did the proposal, which was leaked and linked to all over the internet.

The book could fairly be called “hotly anticipated,” and with the book releasing today, the reviews have started pouring in. Those reviews are generally positive, if not overwhelming. And for the publisher, they do something important: They are all written by people who had assumed that the book would be a cultural phenomenon. Because that’s what Random House paid millions of dollars for–a cultural phenomenon.Continue Reading

Welcome to the Literary Jungle

Eudora WeltySeveral times a year I am the recipient of emails or phone calls from friends, colleagues, parents, or complete strangers in search of writing guidance. Often the messages begins, “Hello, my name is Barbra. My daughter wants to be a writer. She’s very talented. Jill Matthews said you might be able to . . .” What follows ranges from, “give some advice” to “edit her trilogy.” These types of messages leave me sighing, not because I don’t enjoy cultivating new voices, but because how those people perceive the writing community and the writing vocation is often vastly different from actuality.

While it would be easy to give advice from my personal experiences, those experiences are just that–personal. Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: What NYC Publishing REALLY Thinks About Self-Publishing

Last week, I had an author ask me the earliest his publisher could have his book out. I told him January 2016. Even if he turned it in this week. “And, they wonder why big publishers are dying,” he said. He wondered aloud if he should crowdfund a shorter idea and self-publish a ninety-nine cent ebook between now and then. The funny thing is that he’d referred a friend to me just a few weeks ago who wanted an agent. That friend had gone exactly the route he was now proposing, and had found the indie pub experience to be much less amazing than he’d been led to believe.

4x8dmoxI’ve written before that big publishers aren’t dying, but many of my authors wonder if they aren’t at least scared by the number of alternative routes to getting a book published. If you spend a lot of time on Reddit’s subreddit for writers, you’ll get the feeling that authors are all revolutionaries and that, because of them, the NYC publishers must know their weak foundations are crumbling.

That’s not, however, how the people I know think of the situation at all. I’ve never heard a single person in publishing, young or old, express fear over the rise of self-publishing.

That’s why the most interesting thing I’ve read in the past two weeks was this article in the Guardian by Suzanne McGee, called “You can try to be the next Hemingway– for $6,000.” (Full disclosure: I have spoken with Suzanne in the past about her writing, but not about this piece.) It’s an account of what you’ll have to pay to self-publish well, and it’s a useful resource for writers.

What’s even more interesting to me, however, is how much more than this a traditional publisher spends to make a book happen. NYC publishers spend ten times that, which demonstrates that you get what you pay for: the difference in the final product is a big part of why many employees at the big publishers don’t consider self-publishing a threat at all.

Continue Reading