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Beyond Admissions: The Campus Novel

This article was originally published on Medium.com.

Disclosure: This page may contain affiliate links, meaning if you decide to make a purchase through one of these links, I may make a small commission (at no additional cost to you), which I will donate to literary organizations in Boston. Thanks!

jeanne-blasberg-boston-book-festival-the-campus-novel-panel

I sat on a panel last weekend at the Boston Book Festival with three incredible authors of recent releases to discuss “The Campus Novel.” Long-held favorites in American literature, campus novels are set in academia with protagonists coming of age among a variety of pressures. Schools, after all, have long provided ripe settings in literature — think THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE by Patrick Conroy. They are convenient microcosms, mysterious islands unto themselves with specific codes of conduct and traditions. If a writer’s primary objective is to ‘world-build,’ then campuses provide a great head start.

the-nine-campus-novel-by-jeanne-blasbergIn addition to my novel, THE NINE, the Boston Book Festival panel included CJ Farley with his novel AROUND HARVARD SQUARE, Mona Awad and BUNNY, and Elizabeth Ames who wrote THE OTHER’S GOLD. While THE NINE is set on a fictional boarding school campus, AROUND HARVARD SQUARE and THE OTHER’S GOLD are set on college campuses, and BUNNY portrays one young woman’s experience in an MFA program. Our moderator, Lisa Borders, kicked off the discussion with the ways we had each spun this recognizable genre, however, CJ Farley was quick to point out that the four novels, with regard to subject matter at least, were more similar than different.

the-others-gold-campus-novel-by-elizabeth-amesThere was head nodding on the stage. We were, he continued, all dwelling on the theme of exclusivity and groups — whether cliques of friends, societies (secret and otherwise). Our protagonists are disheartened as they meet continuous tests of acceptance inside their respective academic settings. And while our young heroes and heroines may have been conflicted about these groups at first, they ultimately wanted in. Whereas one (a parent for instance) may have assumed gaining admission to the likes of Harvard was success in itself, our characters are disheartened with the continuous tests of acceptance that are set out before them. BUNNY and THE OTHER’S GOLD are interesting in their deep dive into the world of female friendship and the intense bonds (for better or worse) that are created on campuses during early adulthood. After touching on the theme of acceptance, loyalty and betrayal were obvious follow-ups in all of our novels.

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Five Publishing Tips from a Sophomore Novelist

This post was originally published on diymfa.com as a part of the #5onFri series.

five-publishing-tips-sophomore-novelist-jeanne-blasberg-diy-mfaAs I home in on the publication date for my second novel (The Nine, She Writes Press, August 20), there is excitement whirring in my mind as well as the anxiety that comes with keeping track of a to-do list. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to some underlying trepidation, as well. Having launched Eden (She Writes Press, May 2017), I am aware of the stamina and tough skin it requires to be a novelist. Regardless of whether you are publishing your first piece or your tenth, the following list includes five reminders intended to calm you down and boost you up in equal measure.

1) Remember, a life that includes creating art is a privilege

Expressing ideas with the written word is a noble pursuit. If you carry that mindset on this journey, all else will fall into perspective. Whenever doubt or fear creeps into the process, breathe deeply and come back to a place of gratitude. Really, what you are offering is a gift. I know this sounds very crunchy, but the vulnerability that comes with publication is an opportunity to attract  and connect with all sorts of good things.

Despite your attention being focused on your now published work, keep writing. It always feels good to have work-in-process to turn to, and even if you write a modest amount every day, your word count will still accumulate. Writing something fresh every day keeps a positive spirit alive. Go to bed each night secure in the knowledge that, if nothing else, you are making forward progress and that you are one of the creators.

2) Make the Ask

Now that you’ve accepted the fact what you are creating is your offering, your gift….  don’t be shy. The world is not going to know about the insight you’ve poured onto the page unless you share it, and share it proudly. Ask for feedback and ask for help. When your work is accepted for publication there will be much more asking in store: for blurbs, for pre-orders, for reviews. The asking never stops.

My publisher, Brooke Warner of She Writes Press, always says the creative world operates on a currency of generosity. So ask with humility and be the type of artist who looks forward to being generous when it is her turn. When Eden was published, I worried a lot about asking. But once I swallowed my fear and did it, a deep well of support was there for me. I have to say, stepping into it was life-changing and one of the greatest byproducts of this writing endeavor. Sometimes I even think it is the reason I was meant to take this on.

3) Be a Good Literary Citizen

That’s right, the writing community is waiting to embrace you, but first you must become a good literary citizen. Go to readings and review recent publications. Cultivate relationships with fellow authors and attend their events. Support local bookstores, listen to and share podcasts, and attend book festivals.

Again, humility is important. When people sense sincerity, they are more apt to help.  This can mean blurbing your book or inviting you to participate in a festival. This can mean inviting you to book clubs and library readings. I tried to say yes to everything humanly possible. For the introvert writer in me, this was a newfound skill, and again it was life changing because there is a lot that can be done from home, behind the safety of your lap-top screen….  but there really isn’t anything that equals the connections you will make with real life human beings. So, do as much as possible in person, and when that is not an option use social media….

4) Embrace Social Media

When I published my debut, I didn’t quite understand the role social media and blogging would play in my writing career. Twitter? What are you talking about? Now I stay in touch with readers through my blog and I find myself buoyed by robust communities on Instagram and Facebook. As an indie author, the digital world has opened up a world of readers to me, and specifically a niche of readers who like the type of books I write. So figure out how this works and if you become overwhelmed or if this gets in the way of your writing practice, ask for help!

jeanne-blasberg-writing-publishing-tips5) Celebrate every small victory along the way

Know there will be ups and downs, and not everyone will like your work. But just one door-opening opportunity, one great publicity hit, one influencer’s endorsement can make all the difference. And if you dare, celebrate the defeats too because it all adds up to experience and the learning curve is steep. You aren’t really a writer unless you’ve experienced rejection and bad reviews! Just embrace the fact that you are climbing. There is something blissful about not knowing much during that first go round at getting published, but subsequent times be grateful for your expanded vantage point. You’ve earned an amazing view and can see what truly matters: how far you’ve come.

Japanese house and lush garden

How the Japanese Tea Ceremony Mirrors the Author/Reader Relationship

On our recent trip to Asia I barely scratched the surface of omotenashi, the Japanese spirit of hospitality, but I did have the opportunity to participate in a tea ceremony which gave me a glimpse. As I lay awake that night combatting jet lag, I began to see parallels between the author/reader relationship and the tea ceremony. This might be the type of idea that only seems brilliant at 3am… but here goes…

Omotenashi

The concept of service or hospitality runs very deep in Japan, the core being that each human encounter is unique and that every moment is once-in-a-lifetime. Each meeting, therefore, is entered into with great planning and intention. The height of the practice of omotenashi is a traditional tea ceremony. I must thank my dear friend Andy Goldfarb for introducing me to this concept before our departure.

The Tea Ceremony

The interaction begins before the guest arrives – with the host’s planning. She takes great care with the aesthetics: selecting the tea service, arranging the flowers, hanging a scroll. The details may consume the host’s thoughts before the meeting, but they are invisible to the guest, done without any expectation for appreciation.

When the guest arrives, the host kneels in front of a shrine to prepare the matcha with prescribed movements. She takes the tea vessel in her left hand and ladles the perfect amount of water over the green tea powder with fluidity and grace. She then rapidly whisks the mixture back and forth (approximately fifty times) until it is topped with a froth just so. She bows before passing the cup to the first guest who also shows great humility and appreciation for the final product. The guest is even expected to enjoy the last sip of tea with an audible slurp.

foamy green matcha teaThe Ritual of Writing

As is the case with creating any art, there is a moment when the artist (or novelist in my case) begins to consider her audience. Revisions and edits to early drafts serve the piece, making language more clear, and conveying ideas with nuance and subtlety. Achieving refinement and simplicity requires the writer do more work. It’s not always what the host or writer does, but sometimes what she decides not to do that makes all the difference. Just like spending time selecting the correct tea set, the writer does not expect nor necessarily desire the reader to know everything that went into the preparation. It’s an unspoken contract between us that  immense intention was involved.

One of the most satisfying things about writing fiction is using my imagination as an instrument. I picture a cloud of energy forming then percolating in my brain, finding its way out through my fingers typing on my keyboard – sort of like whisking green tea into a froth? I work to perfect my craft, ladling just enough action to mix with character detail. When the final product is ready, it is my offering to readers.A house and garden in Japan

Readers take the vessel in hand and turn it, appreciating the cover art. If they are willing,they consume it, and voila: my imagination and stream of energy finds a path to theirs. If they really enjoy the book – and hopefully they do – they might finish with a big healthy slurp that sounds something like a five star review.

So like the master of the tea ceremony, working to tend the aesthetic of her tea garden, I sit down to write each day, aware that each sentence I craft is unique to this moment, and attuned to my experiences. I bow in humility to each reader who, like the guest at the ceremony, is willing to accept this version of omotenashi and drink from my cup.

Jeanne with She Writes Press authors at the Brooklyn Book Festival

Women Writers over a Certain Age

The following article was originally published on BooksByWomen.org.

A friend suggested recently I write an essay about how one went about being taken seriously as a female writer over fifty. My first reaction to this suggestion was actually surprise, and my second was wonder …. maybe she didn’t take me seriously? I sat back in my chair and regarded her more closely.

No, the suggestion was definitely intended as a compliment, and I got the feeling as we sat there that she hoped I had some special secret. The truth was, I hadn’t stopped to think about it.

Her suggestion reminded me of the time a father on the sidelines of a girls lacrosse game asked my husband what we’d done to make our daughter so hungry for the net. My husband just shrugged, “That’s how she came out.” Likewise, my ability to pursue a writing career at fifty, with no real credentials to speak of, might also be a matter of good instincts or good fortune (neither of which do I take for granted). After some consideration, I’ve come up with some pointers that might be useful for anyone embarking on a similar “under-dog” journey.

If you want others to take you seriously, take yourself seriously.

Let me rephrase that, don’t take yourself seriously, that’s unattractive. Take your writing seriously. I sit at my desk every morning, I decline invitations. I write whether I feel like it or not. I call myself a writer. I introduce myself as a writer. I talk about my books. I am not shy.

I accept invitations and view every opportunity to discuss my book as a blessing. I have fully immersed myself in the literary community in Boston. I attend readings. I take classes. I am workshopped, and I accept feedback. I blog and submit essays for publication. If I am writing I tell other people not to bother me. My business cards read “author.” I attend conferences. I approach people. I watch what the authors I admire do and I try to emulate them. When I am not writing, I am reading. I review books.

Don’t compare yourself to others.

While a traditional book deal with one of the big five is very prestigious and the gold standard in publishing, there are many other ways to connect with the reading public if that is your goal. Starting later in life, I made the decision that chasing prestige and prizes couldn’t be my priority. From day one connecting with readers was my singular focus, through my books, my blog, and through social media. I might not have an MFA, but I’ve had a relatively eventful life that provides plenty of material and emotional knowledge to infuse into my writing. I don’t think there is a writing program in the world that can teach what it feels like to love, to give birth, to lose, to bounce back, or to choose compassion.

Reject those who are rejecting you.

I decided to stop banging my head against the wall called the New York publishing world. After many years of rejection from New York agents and editors, I decided it was a party I wasn’t likely to be invited to. Luckily, in this digital age, in this age of disrupters, I was able to find an alternate path to publication and have never looked back. I found a hybrid publishing company called She Writes Press founded for women who have life trajectories and aspiration similar to mine. We help and inspire each other and through our collective success, motivate each other. My sisterhood has provided me with strength and more drive than I had when I thought this struggle was mine alone. When EDEN finally made it out in the world, it was embraced by many readers. That was all I ever wanted.

Accept the fact that creating art requires vulnerability.

Vulnerability and authenticity are necessary not only in creating art, but in creating a life with connections (and that includes connections with readers). Readers have a very accurate bullshit meter and will dismiss work that doesn’t feel real very quickly. Brené Brown, renowned social worker and author, teaches in her book Daring Greatly that putting yourself out there is essential. Being vulnerable, she writes, is the key to making connections. When you embrace vulnerability, you are also expressing your sense of self-worthiness. Don’t confuse this with ego, it is the opposite.

When you put yourself out there, when you allow yourself to be truly seen, others stop and take notice. They admire the honesty. They equate vulnerability with courage. They say “Wow.” The hardest thing about putting yourself out there is letting go of the worry you aren’t good enough and the fear of being judged.

In the weeks before EDEN was released I could barely get out of bed in the morning, I was so overcome by nerves. But if you are putting the work in (see pointer #1) you needn’t worry. Whether your writing career started in your twenties or your fifties, strive to tell your authentic story with your authentic voice. You will make connections. People will respond positively. I struggled whether to list this as pointer number one or pointer number four because it’s a necessary concept from the start, but it is also an evolving realization. I also have to think this is that secret something my friend was searching for when she suggested I write this article.

Jeanne M. Blasberg, author of "Eden", and friends at book club

Book Club: It’s Okay if You Don’t Discuss the Book

The following article was originally published on NovelNetwork.com.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the disparaging comment that book clubs drink more wine than talk about that book. I’ve visited many book clubs since the release of EDEN, and people who think it is just an excuse to drink wine don’t get it. Book clubs are for readers but the meetings aren’t just to talk about the book. In my own book club, we spend a higher percentage of our meeting time talking about other things.

And that’s okay.

When a group of friends make book selections and read simultaneously, it’s like traveling to the same place, meeting the same people, entering a common consciousness no less. When they meet later “to discuss,” enjoying food and drink, the contents of the book are almost reminisced about as opposed to critically analyzed. Some people have fond memories and some thought something was missing, some have foggy memories, and some got stuck on a particular issue, but we’ve taken the same trip and that’s pretty cool.

The common experience is what matters, setting the groundwork for a deeper dive into the themes of the book. Bonds of friendship are formed when we share experiences and ideas, when we discuss hypotheticals. A book that stimulates great discussion (tangential or not) is a good book club pick.

Better to tear apart a fictional character than to gossip, and better to discuss a place you’ve read about than to sit in envy of one person’s exotic travels. The conversation at your book club may not always stay on the one thing you have in common that month (the book) but it is a starting point to many important conversations.

It is fun to imagine friends lying in bed reading or driving in their cars listening to the same books. If you’re like me details about the book will come up in snippets of conversation when we bump into each other on the sidewalk or at the gym. I might even text a friend “loving it” or “hating it” mid-month. Often, by the time the book club meets, the temperature of the group has been determined, influencing how much time we spend on the book or how quickly we go there.

Picking a good cross section of genre, our group has found, is important. Traveling to a variety of lands offers an opportunity to compare and contrast stories as well as authors’ styles. So no, we aren’t always talking about the book, we are already a few steps beyond, on to the next step, talking about where the book took us.

how instagram helps my writing

How Instagram Helps My Writing

I took a “Writing from Personal Experience” class in Cambridge taught by Mopsy Strange Kennedy. An exercise she often assigned us involved going on “writerly walks.”  She encouraged us to travel our usual paths but make the effort to really notice – maybe for the first time – the details along the route: the bicycle chained to a post, the balustrade in need of paint, the torn screen on a window.  After the walk, we were supposed to write about a particular object, the more mundane the better, but the purpose was to infuse that object with meaning.  It was a good way to develop writing muscle as well as the art of paying attention. I noticed quirks and color and inconsistencies. I noticed the way the sun reflects off a window or the way steam rises off hot pavement, windows that were open wide and music that traveled to the sidewalk, even the scent of hot pizza escaping a delivery bike’s insulated red container. I noticed trash and dog poop, as well as crocuses pushing up through the earth.

Aiming to post a daily photo on Instagram requires a similar practice. When taking photographs, I am not looking for smell or sound, but for an interesting tableau.  It’s easy to take our routines for granted, but when searching for beautiful patterns or color or amusements, we have our eyes wide open.  Social media can be blamed for a lot but, for me at least, when it comes to Insta, it adds an artistic distraction to my day.

Follow me on Instagram @jeanneblasbergauthor.

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On Golfing and Writing

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If I look back at the woman I was twenty years ago…

I never thought I’d love golf. I also never thought about the day I’d be staring into my sixth decade on the planet. When you are in your thirties, it’s hard to find joy in a slower tempo. In the same way yoga didn’t appeal to me at that age, neither did a four-hour activity mired with frustration.

It’s only been in the last ten years I’ve come to appreciate the compassion and brain health that comes from a beginner’s mentality. It is so much easier to stick with what we are good at, but there is no growth in that. No matter how much golf I play, I’m always filled with humility and the sense that I have so much to learn. As a writer, reading great books evokes the same feeling. German classes and years of bridge lessons have also put me in the shoes of a beginner, but those practices didn’t stick the way golf has.

That’s because I also love being outdoors. I’ve come to crave the green grass and fresh air, the camaraderie walking the course, my heart rate slowing with the measured, even, pace of the game. A four-hour walk with good friends and no phones: such a luxury in today’s world. Golf teaches me that success comes from taking time and studying my options. Ever try to putt quickly without reading the green? I am a type A personality who multi-tasks and juggles multiple projects at once. Golf has taught me something about concentration and clarity. It has taught me to value precision over power.

Golf benefits my squash and my writing in the same way yoga or meditation does. I like to think of a golf outing as an extended practice in even breathing and intentional thinking. It begins with gratitude for just having the time and the access to play the game. Then, every swing, every new hole is an opportunity to put the past behind and visualize greatness and use positive self-talk. It’s taken me many decades to face down the critic in my head, but rounds of golf have given me millions of opportunities to tell her to go away!

I never thought I’d love golf, I never understood what people liked about it. I can’t believe I’m at an age where I feel this way, but I really do love golf.

Back on Campus – School Stories

back on campusYou’ve probably seen all the photos on Facebook and Instagram – it’s graduation season and I can’t believe how my friends’ children are growing up! Graduations mark a big accomplishment for students as well as parents. Whether its high school or college, it is monumental to have crossed this major finish line.

Our middle son graduated from college on Memorial Day Weekend. It was a wonderful weekend that brought our family together to honor him and all his hard work. There were ceremonies and cocktails and dinners, but what I most appreciated was being on campus.

A campus is an island whether its remotely located or embedded in a town. It’s a self-contained world with traditions and a culture and rules of its own. It is self-governing and is populated by a revolving door of young adults. It has its common spaces and its hiding places. It has its own rhythm with quiet mornings and raucous late nights.

As a parent, walking onto a campus, or into a dorm or classroom building, feels like sneaking – dare I say trespassing after all the tuition we’ve laid out! But we aren’t supposed to be there, when we visit we are voyeurs to a special place and time that is no longer ours. And our children, who have license to occupy the space, might do so with the mindset of a traveler on an extended journey. They will be moving on, after all. So, it becomes a first home away from home, an experiment in living alone.

Aah if the walls could talk. The campus has seen growth and love and dissent and resistance. The campus has seen victory and protest. The campus has seen homesickness and nostalgia. The campus has witnessed trepidation and pride.

Maybe that is why, in addition to the romance of an actual green quadrangle surrounded by ivy-laden brick buildings, I have always loved the campus novel. What do you think of this line up:

I devoured all these books. A writing teacher had me watch “The Sterile Cuckoo,” starring a very young Liza Manelli and filmed on the Hamilton College campus. There are the more main stream hits: Love Story, Animal House, and Harry Potter but I think I’ve made a point – drama or comedy, literary fiction, or a trashy delve into Restless Virgins, lots of people find the campus entertaining. There is something primal about a world unto its own – it’s a microcosm of society, with all sorts of “Lord of the Flies” possibilities.

I am working on the final revisions of my novel, The Nine, which is also set on a boarding school campus. When I wrote EDEN, I hadn’t been aware that there was a whole genre around the “saying-goodbye-to-the-family-summer-home” story line. I am well aware, however, there is a long history of great campus novels. They have been a mainstay of American literature since before Holden Caulfield bolted for New York City. Campuses are filled with intrigue and mystery and the adults in charge of them are managing conflict and staving off scandal. It’s ripe, people. It’s ripe.

I would love to hear what your favorite campus novels are and why!!

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The Nine

Very excited that my second novel, The Nine, will be released by She Writes Press in August 2019. Attached is a Spotify playlist to get you in the frame of mind.

how much of this

How Much of This Is Autobiographical?

This is the question I receive most often when visiting with book clubs and readers. Haven’t you noticed how books or movies “based on a true story” seem to hold so much appeal? People really want to know what “really happened.” Well, I try not to disappoint.  The answer is that EDEN was inspired by events in my life and the lives of women I have known and loved. The key word being inspired, with one small exception, the characters in EDEN are not representative of any real people. (That small exception being Mary Thaw, the Pittsburgh coal fortune heiress who owned the Italianate villa on the hill and harbored residents during the 1938 hurricane.)

I recently attended a breakfast with writer Steve Almond. It was a gathering of several authors and we got onto the topic of “writing what you know.”   I asked Steve to help me reconcile that advice with what I had also been told at the Iceland Writer’s Retreat last April, that inexperienced writers are present in their work, whereas evolved writers are invisible in their writing, creating characters who  differ greatly from them as human beings. I’m still in the “write what you know” camp. I describe EDEN as a collage of experiences, a sort of cubist painting or kaleidoscope of what I’ve witnessed, all the while an exploration of themes that are best achieved in fiction.

I am in EDEN. I am that ten-year-old girl who counted out the months between her parents’ wedding date and her birth. But that doesn’t mean I’m Sarah. I invested my characters with my own emotional memory. I fictionalized and expanded on other circumstances in my family, other unplanned pregnancies to be specific, but the key word is fictionalized. If the book reads with a ring of truth, it is because I tried to capture the emotional aftermath I witnessed, while never having really known exactly how things came to be.

My second novel, The Nine, (August 2019, She Write Press) has a main character with whom I can closely relate. She is the hyper vigilant mother of a teenage boy. I can already foresee the connection readers are going to make, but I am not her!! Hannah is much more surprising than I could ever be! It is true that I was inspired to write The Nine after my family went through some traumatizing events. The process of writing helped me let go of my personal situation and see what happened as something universal: the mother-son bond (a topic that has been written about for eons), and trust, and betrayal. These are themes I want to explore while developing my plot around a compelling boarding school setting. As I wrote draft after draft and revised my work, the characters developed lives of their own. Again, their reactions and emotions are ones I have invested them with. So at the core of who these people are, there is something of me, my worldview, my heart. I am a fifty-two year old woman with a wealth of experience, and that is the well from which I source everything. So the answer is yes, of course, it is all autobiographical. I scratch my head at any writer who says otherwise.