Writing Goals

There’s less than a week remaining in January, which, for me anyway, means it’s still the New Year. Which means we’re still within the 2018-goal-setting window, if there’s such a window at all. When speaking of goals here, I mean writing goals. (I’m a writer, so what other goals are there to ponder?)

As 2017 came to a close, I thought long and hard about my goals for 2018: a large writing project to revise, essays to complete and submit to literary journals, and agents/publishers to whom to pitch my memoir.

Ten days before the New Year, when I was thinking about how to hone in on manageable, realistic writing goals, an email from Brevity, a journal of concise literary nonfiction, popped-up in my inbox. I clicked open the email, and there it was, the post that could not have come at a better time. In “The Year of the Writer,” Allison Williams starts out by first encouraging us to celebrate even our tiniest 2017 writing accomplishments. Maybe it’s a sentence you’re proud of, the essay you finally sent to a dream literary journal, the positive feedback you received from your writing group, or the rejection letter from an editor who took the time to offer specific suggestions and asked you to re-submit in the future. Allison’s mindful nudge for us to recognize each of our writing accomplishments, while examining what worked and didn’t work, was grounding for me. It gave me permission to pause, to take my time to mine the ever-growing list of writing goals I continue to compile and house in a somewhat large file on my computer’s desktop.

So how did I hone in on my 2018 writing goals? I listened to Allison and focused on the classic SMART formula: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, timely. As Allison cautioned, I was careful to not set too many goals, and took into consideration my emotional/mental idiosyncrasies. (I become anxious when I have too much ahead of me, and end up spending more time thinking about how I wish I weren’t so anxious than getting as much work accomplished as I’d like.)

Here’s what I came up with (except for goal #1, the deadlines are self-imposed):

1) Apply for the 2018 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Middlebury, Vermont. Deadline February 15, 2018.

2) Submit fifty query letters to agents by the end of March, which is in addition to the 125 I sent in 2017.

3) Each week, revise two chapters of a draft of a novel I wrote two years ago.

4) Revise an essay rejected by a mainstream newspaper, then submit to other publications. Deadline February 10, 2018.

5) Complete an essay about processing forgiveness and submit to literary journals. Deadline: still thinking about it.

6) Collect ideas/thoughts/questions regarding the structure of my next memoir. Deadline: March 1 2018.

Since I do well with visual reminders of things I need/want to accomplish, I typed my writing-goal list, printed it out, and taped it to the inside front cover of my 2018 date book. That way, when my mind gets over-excited about other writing projects, I have that list readily available to remind me, “Melissa, stay focused. Of course, if something else comes up that’s worthy of veering off my writing-goal course, like an offer from an agent to represent my memoir, who then quickly sells it to, say, Random House, and I’m too busy traveling for my book tour to complete those two essays or work on my novel, then I’m all good, really, really good.

So far, I’m ahead when it comes to goal #1: I hit the send button on January 6. Now I just have to wait until May to hear back from Bread Loaf. I’ve taken a small bite out of goal #2: six queries sent – forty-six remaining. As for goal #3, I begin the revisions of my novel during a five-day retreat in Point Reyes, California – what I call the kickoff event to making my next large project the best that it can be. Goal #4: I’m happy to share that I’m deep into revisions of the essay, and feel good about meeting my February 10 deadline. Goal #5: Well, there’s a reason why I didn’t set a deadline: I only recently started the first draft of this essay, and still need to think about a realistic time frame. For some reason (one of my idiosyncrasies), once I set a date, I feel as if I can’t change it. So I need to be sure before putting it out there in black and white. Goal #6: I’ve come out ahead here too; I’ve already decided on the structure of my second memoir, and have even written the first and last sentences of the book!

What writing-life experiences from 2017 have helped you to formulate your 2018 goals? What are your writing goals for 2018? How do you navigate distractions, keep your butt in the chair, keep your eyes on the page and your fingers on the keyboard?









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Reaching for the Keys: Available on Audio

My essay, “Reaching for the Keys,” about my experience taking the car keys away from my Alzheimer’s-afflicted father, is now available on audioA huge thank you goes out to Sarah Cronin, musician, sound/video engineer, performance artist, costume designer, writer, and more, who has kindly featured my piece (in my voice!) on her website.

“Reaching for the Keys” was previously published in issue 11 of Saranac Review.

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Conjoined Twins

Chang and Eng Bunker. Born 1811. Thailand.


One might wonder how conjoined twins manage to survive – physiologically, mentally, and emotionally – after surgical separation. While some sets of conjoined twins, for medical reasons, cannot be separated, as in the somewhat famous case of Brittany and Abby Hensel, since 1987 several have been successfully separated. In some cases, conjoined twins, who are old enough to make thoughtful choices, have refused to be separated. Lupita and Carmen Andrade, who were expected to live only three days after they were born, not only defied the odds, but are now living together, literally. Both refused the option to be separated. According to the Deccan Chroniclethe twins say “it would be like cutting them in half.”

The decision to surgically separate conjoined twins is not one to be taken lightly. Inevitably, ethics comes into play. The most urgent question of all: What if one twin must be sacrificed? Do we allow one twin to die to save the other? Which twin’s life matters more? The questions are endless, questions I can’t imagine having to face if I were the parent of conjoined twins.

You might be wondering why I’m writing about conjoined twins, why I’m sharing with you this extremely rare and mind-blowing phenomenon. I’m sharing all this with you because I cared for a set of conjoined twins as a neonatal intensive care nurse. Though decades have passed since I held all *fourteen pounds of sweetness in my arms, fed them, changed their diapers, and held my breath as I waited for the then eight-month-old twins to come out of the hours-long surgery, I’m still awestruck. So what does a writer do with all that awe? Naturally, she writes about it. Which is exactly what I have done in my essay, “After,” published today at Intima, a literary Journal dedicated to promoting the theory and practice of Narrative Medicine. Created in 2010 by graduate students in the Master of Science program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, Intima has featured writers in the literary and medical fields from around the world.

Thank you for reading “After,” and feel free to follow-up with thoughts, questions, and, of course, your own awestruck moments.


*fourteen pounds is a guesstimate.

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Memoir Dialogue

When writing memoir we’re expected to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, right? Blanket lying to readers is a definite no-no. For instance, I’ve never been to Abu Dhabi, so I can’t (or should not) write about the year I spent (did not spend) in this major cultural and commercial metropolis on coast of the Persian Gulf. But when writing memoir dialogue, it’s impossible to recall, say, the exact conversation you had with your grandmother just hours before she collapsed from a stroke twenty years ago, or precisely what your mother said to you when she dropped you off at school on your first day of kindergarten.

“We alter our memories just by remembering them,” says McGill University psychologist Alain Brunet. The more we recall a piece of dialogue, or event, the more we change it. So how do memoir writers stay as close to the truth as possible when writing dialogue? In every memoir workshop I’ve attended over the past eight years, that question has been the single, most urgent one asked by my writing peers. Dialogue is the brick-wall writers often fear scaling. It’s the aspect of memoir that can easily drive us to say, “Maybe I shouldn’t write this book after all.”

But, wait, if you’re working on a memoir, and considering giving up on it because you can’t seem to find a way over the dialogue wall, I’m here to spot you on your climb upward. This is what I learned about writing dialogue during a recent memoir retreat led by award winning authors Kate Moses and Elizabeth Cohen:

Unless you were blessed with the opportunity to record or write down every last word of the conversation you had with your grandmother twenty years ago, or happen to have had enough savvy as a kindergartner to crayon what I hope were your mother’s encouraging words, then you might want to try what is called the “subjunctive,” or “suggestive,” mode. In this case, you might preface the dialogue with “something like” or “as if.” You can also use “I imagine,” as in “I imagine my mother said, ‘Sweetie, you’ll be okay, I’ll be right here to pick you up …’”

The other option is to employ “representative” dialogue. For example, you might write, “Whenever I was afraid, my mother would assure me, ‘I’m here for you.’” It’s the word “would” which shows readers that your intention is to capture the sentiment of what your mother actually said. The dialogue does not have to be exact, as long as you convey the intended information: maybe it’s how comforted you felt knowing you could rely on your mother to protect you.

Use these strategies judiciously, though. Relying on them too often makes for an unwieldy narrative.

Another alternative is to announce, “I don’t remember what my mother said to me on my first day of kindergarten. All I know is that I was afraid.” Admitting you don’t remember makes you, the author, more credible.

If you’re looking for a good example of how an author recalls dialogue and scene from childhood, Kate and Elizabeth suggest reading Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs.

Good luck!







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The importance of wasting time

The other day, while searching for ideas to jumpstart my writer’s brain, I decided to haul out from my file cabinet the library of journals fat with notes from lectures I attended as a Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate student. I thumbed through each page, scanning for a word, a phrase, anything that made my heart skip a beat. Aha, after several minutes, it finally happened, the one sentence I needed most to see, to hear, to touch, to taste: “The importance of wasting time.”I let out a long, calming breath, comforted by this affirmation: it’s okay to be idle.

Creative people do take time off from their projects to engage in completely different activities. Maybe a writer takes time to paint or doodle, to play music, to learn a new skill, or to take a nap – imagine that, taking a nap during the day. Such idleness allows time for “incubation,” says Connie May Fowler and Patrick Madden, prolific writers, authors, and VCFA faculty members. This incubation period works best when we first identity the problem with our manuscript, then step away from it, throw all the worrying over it in the trash – and live our lives. (Take that nap.)

Think of the incubation period as a time for “cooking your book,” Connie and Patrick say. Of course, to leave your book, or project, “cooking,” requires trust – trusting that you’ll eventually be served a heaping plate of creativity while you watch for the water to come to a boil, or the edges of your project to turn a sugary golden brown. But if you’re open to the process, if you are curious and interested in every cobwebbed moment, awake and responsive to every random swirl of a leaf, every sigh of a passing stranger, every intentional touch of a hand on the curve of your back, the creativity will come.


Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top. ~ Virginia Woolf




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After a freak car accident, I thought I was too broken to find love

I did it! After I spent the better part of four months working on an essay about how I found love after a deadly car crash left me wounded, and feeling ugly and unworthy, it has been published in the The Washington Post. This piece is not for me alone to read and remember how far I’ve come. It is for all of us who have been scarred and fractured by trauma – any kind of trauma. It is for those of you who still feel lost and alone and afraid. My essay, “After a freak car accident, I thought I was too broken to find love,” is my gift to you.

(Sorry if you have already seen the link to the essay.)

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