Friday, November 2, 2018

David Sedaris' Calypso

I spent three days gobbling up David Sedaris's new book, Calypso. It's a book of essays that adds up to a memoir, about his relationship with his immediate family and his boyfriend. His mother was an alcoholic and one of his sisters committed suicide but the book still manages to be laugh out loud funny, despite the darkness and some of his more disturbing confessions. In the chapter, "The Spirit World," he writes about his sister, Tiffany:

"The last time I saw my sister Tiffany was at the stage door at Symphony Hall in Boston. I'd just finished a show and was getting ready to sign books when I heard her say 'David. David, it's me. ' 
We hadn't spoken in four years at that point, and I was shocked by her appearance. Tiffany always looked like my mother when she was young. Now she looked like my mother when she was old, though at the time she couldn't have been more than forty-give. 'It's me, Tiffany.' She held up a paper bag with the Starbucks logo on it. Her shoes looked like she'd found them in a trash can. 'I have something for you.'  There was a security guard holding the stage door open, and I said to him, 'Will you close that please?' I had filled the house that night. I was in charge---Mr. Sedaris. 'The door,' I repeated. 'I'd like for you to close it now.' "

Sedaris never saw or spoke to his sister again. She died by overdose and asphyxiation four years later.  It's a singularly appalling moment in an otherwise (mostly) warm and loving book, but kudos to Sedaris for admitting to being such a schmuck, out loud and in print. 

In "Why Aren't You Laughing?," Sedaris paints a loving portrait of his mother, who, despite her alcoholic rages and self-destructive tendencies, was a master storyteller who taught her kids the art of story-telling and sent them loving notes and money when they needed it. In other essays, Sedaris writes about his obsession with his Fitbit, his love affair with a fox named Carol, getting a 6-day stomach virus and performing anyway, his staunchly Republican father, his efforts to feed his own tumor to his favorite snapping turtle in North Carolina, and the number of lovers his boyfriend had before they met. 

If you don't want to read the whole book, here is a l
ink to "Why Aren't You Laughing?", an essay about the highs and lows of life with his mother, and  a link to "Now We Are Five", an essay about what happened to his immediate family after his sister passed away.  You can also listen to Sedaris read "Now We Are Five" on This American Life. But I suggest buying or borrowing the whole book. You won't be able to put it down.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Keeping Our Mothers Alive: A Writing Workshop

Please join my friend and student, the therapist Judith Ruskay Rabinor, and me as we lead a writing workshop on the roles of mothers in writing at the JCC Manhattan on Monday, 10/22/18, from 5:30-7:30 p.m.. We will be reading, writing and discussing mothers, mothering and motherhood, and how these roles, relationships and archetypes can be used in our work. The cost of the workshop is $50. Space is limited. For more information and to register, please click on this link.

Who else is loved so deeply and blamed so intensely as one's mother? Whether your mother is dead or alive, the stories you tell about her have a profound impact on how you live your life.  Most mothers are neither "Perfect"  nor are they "Mommy Dearest." These images devalue the complexity of the mothers we have, had and are. In this writing workshop you will be guided through  a series of exercises that help you see the complexity of your mother-story.
Judith Ruskay Rabinor, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist consultant and author with offices in New York City and Lido Beach, Long Island. She is the author of two books, dozens of articles and is working on a memoir about her mother, Making Peace with Peggy: A Meditation on Marriage and Motherhood. For more information, please go to
Laura Zinn Fromm is the author of Sweet Survival: Tales of Cooking & Coping, published by Greenpoint Press, and the former editor of Millburn-Short Hills magazine. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from Columbia University and a BA from Wellesley College. She teaches fiction and creative non-fiction through New York Writers Workshop and has also taught at Columbia University and Montclair State. A former editor at Business Week magazine, her work has been published in The New York Times, Huffington Post and elsewhere. She is a winner of a Clarion Award and a Newspaper Guild's Page One Award for Labor Reporting. For more information, please go to

Friday, June 15, 2018

Live From New York: Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker

In the middle of June, I went to Hunter College Writing Center’s Summer Symposium in NYC. The highlight of this event was the keynote speaker, Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor of The New Yorker. She was funny, self-deprecating, witty and a pleasure to listen to.

After her talk, I stood on line to meet her. (Full disclosure: She was the reason I went to the symposium.) She took her time with every person who waited to speak to her. I told her I taught as many New Yorker stories as I could and one of my favorites was “Cat Person,” which she ran in the December 11, 2017 issue. She asked what it was like to teach it and how my students had reacted to it. Coincidentally, one of my NYC students was standing on line behind me, and Deborah turned to her and said, “Are you here to complain about your teacher?” I could have found things to talk to her about for at least ten more minutes and had to tear myself away so my student could talk to her too.

Below are some highlights from Treisman’s talk. I typed as fast as I could and tried to record her verbatim. She opened her talk by saying she would discuss the history of fiction at The New Yorker and what it was like to edit fiction at The New Yorker. Afterwards, she took questions. The questions are in bold.

"Everyone has an opinion on what a New Yorker story is. Traditionally, it’s been written by a famous established writer. Or it ends abruptly or with an epiphany. Or it’s domestic women’s fiction or it’s bad boy fiction or it’s men’s mid life stories or they are exotic stories written by immigrants…everyone has an opinion about this.

"There is no one category for the stories that we publish. We publish anything from William Trevor to George Saunders to Zadie Smith. A story needs to have a beginning, it needs to have an ending and we hope that it has a middle and beyond that anything is possible.

"The other thing you run up against in the The New Yorker, which has been around since 1925, is the weight of its history. For over last 93 years the fiction department has fostered the careers of Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, Edwidge Danticat, Jhumpa Lahiri, Karen Russell and so many more. They come to the magazine directly or through agents, friends, and the infamous slush pile. The magazine goes out to millions on line, the largest audience for fiction in the world.

"The magazine rejected stories by Flannery O’Connor, JD Salinger, Phillip Roth and William Styron. Richard Yates had a rejection letter hanging on his wall from The New Yorker, 'Never darken our door with your sentimental fiction again.'

"Roger Angell rejected Ann Beatty. He told her she was writing more form than substance. In a letter to her he wrote,  “What I most admire is your wit and quickness and self assurance.’ He rejected 13 of (Beatty’s) stories. The tone of his letters goes from nice to less nice. ‘Your writing is controlling and personal…’ He accepted the fifteenth story she submitted. It’s an object lesson in not taking rejection personally and maybe listening to criticism sometimes or doing your own thing and not giving up.

"Once a story is accepted, some things are radically rewritten, characters can take on a different shape,. It’s almost always a very enjoyable collaboration with writers. Usually the most successful established writers are the most open to suggestions and to fixing things…

"Short stories are fact-checked. We had a story by a Hollywood writer, he wrote about a character putting Smuckers grape jelly on eggs. Our fact checker said Smuckers doesn’t make grape jelly, it has to be Welch’s.

"Editing fiction in magazine form can be a thankless occupation, They come to you and you try to nurture and bring out what’s best in them. When you do a great job, the writer gets the credit and when you do a bad job you get the blame for ruining stories.

"I’ve worked several times with Don DeLillo, lovely to work with. One time his agent sent me a story. She said, 'Don won’t discuss his punctuation, it’s his punctuation, and it’s going to stand.'
I said, “Can we discuss the words?”  
“Yes, that’s fine.”

"Sometimes people have an absolutely firm attachment to what they have on the page. I’ll make a slight prod and say not sure this scene should be where it needs to be…

After her talk, Treisman took questions from the audience:

Do you ever publish stories by people who have never been published?
"It certainly happens once or twice a year someone gets in (who has never published).  20-25% of stories are published by people who’ve never been published by The New Yorker. To find someone who’s never published anything is quite hard since people will get published in college and literary and quarterly journals before sending to us…

"We had a viral piece of fiction, last December, story called “Cat Person.” It had 5 million views on our website. The author (Kristen Roupenian)  had published in an online zine only. The relationship (in the story) starts through texting and then goes quite wrong, and can be excruciating to read. I read it and it makes your skin crawl in a way. So much miscommunication between these two people in the midst of sex and you want to get out of that room, and I thought, that’s an incredible reaction for a piece of fiction to inspire. Rather than publishing and thinking, 'That was pretty good,' I’ll publish the one that makes me uncomfortable and was effectively written. If it was poorly written you wouldn’t reach that point of absorption. It was a fact of timing and when I first read it, it was before Weinstein and me too and when it came out we were in the midst of that. Everyone was geared up to think about the nature of consensuality. A few weeks later, I went to a literary festival in India. The first question in Mumbai was, ‘Tell me about Cat Person!’ It’s satisfying to see fiction have that kind of reach."

Should you submit a cover letter and a CV along with a submission?
‘In the cover letter, you can say nothing and just say, ‘Here’s the story.' You don’t need to give a CV. We don’t pay any attention to the cover letter. That’s the easy answer. Don’t give a long description of the story, we just want to read the story."

What is the longest story you'll publish?
“Usually, it’s very hard for me to get a story into the magazine that is longer than 7,000-8,000 words. Under 7,000 words is the best way to go. “

Are you publishing a lot of fiction by people outside of US?
“There’s a huge vibrancy in fiction from people who are from around the world, it’s about half of what I see."

Are you publishing a lot of 'immigrant fiction?'
"People will say there as a defining voice of the magazine. You can point to Updike and Cheever, at the same time, you can find a lot of any one thing if you look for it. One thing that has changed in the last 25 years is there is more fiction in translation than we used to have. When the magazine started it was called The New Yorker and it was focused more locally, but wherever there is a prevailing style, it doesn’t really prevail….

What did you think about Francine Prose's letter to The New Yorker about the story by Sadia Shepard: 
"Francine Prose wrote a letter about Sadia Shepard, basing her story, Foreign Returned, on Mavis Gallant’s short story, 'The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street.' Fiction writers are magpies, Sadia took a story set among white American expatriates in Geneva and wrote a story about Muslim immigrants in Connecticut in the Trump era. I’m a lifelong worshipper of Mavis Gallant and what she can do with short stories. I didn’t think her original story had been damaged in any way and remained in its sacrosanct space but Francine Prose is entitled to her response too. Lorrie Moore rewrote a Nabokov story. Nathan Englander modeled ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank’ on Raymond Carver’s ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.’ I love these echoes in the world of fiction, I love when stories talk to each other."

Do you publish very short fiction?
"In print we have limits in what we can do. We can’t do a story that is shorter than 1,200 words. The way the magazine is laid out, we can’t have a piece of fiction that is less than a page, can’t do that in print.  I don’t want to set up a hierarchy between print and website. What I can do online only are stories that I can’t do in print, might be something I really like, in that category falls very short fiction. Last summer we did series of flash fiction, one piece a week, online only and we're doing it again this summer."

What do you read for pleasure?
“I’m reading while thinking, ‘Can this work for the magazine?’ At the same time I do read a lot of novels, we do run excerpts from novels, very often by page 20 I can see I’m not going to be able to take anything from this novel and I still can’t stop, so at that point it’s that pleasure."

Are all submissions read?

Note: Treisman's mother, Dr. Anne Treisman, was a well-known psychologist, who taught at Berkeley and Princeton.

How to Submit to The New Yorker

Letters to the editor: Please send letters to, and include your postal address and daytime phone number. Letters may be edited for length and clarity, and may be published in any medium. All letters become the property of The New Yorker.

Fiction submissions: Please send your submissions (as PDF attachments) to, or by mail to Fiction Editor, The New Yorker, 1 World Trade Center, New York, NY 10007. We read all submissions within ninety days, and will contact you if we’re interested in publishing your material. We regret that, owing to the volume of submissions we receive, we are unable to call or e-mail unless a story is accepted for publication. If you have not heard from us within ninety days, please assume that we will not be able to publish your manuscript. Submissions sent by regular mail will not be returned, so please do not send original copies of your work.

Poetry submissions: Poetry is reviewed on a rolling basis. We accept submissions via Submittable only. Send up to six poems per submission, but please do not submit more than twice in twelve months. We do not consider  work that has appeared elsewhere (this includes all Web sites and personal blogs). We are interested in translations of poems that have never been published in English. Simultaneous submissions are welcome, but please notify us promptly, using your Submittable account, if a poem has been accepted elsewhere. We may take up to six months to respond. Beginning January 1, 2017, we will no longer review paper submissions; poems postmarked after that date will not be read.

Shouts & Murmurs submissions: Please send your submission (as a PDF attachment) to We read all submissions and try to respond within ninety days. We ask that you not send us more than one submission at a time, and that you wait to hear back about each pending submission before sending another. Keep in mind that Shouts & Murmurs are humorous fiction; first-person essays will not be considered.

Cartoon submissions: Cartoons are reviewed on a rolling basis. You may send as many as ten cartoons per submission, but please do not submit more than once a month. We do not consider work that has appeared elsewhere (including on Web sites and personal blogs), and we do not consider ideas for cartoons, only fully drawn cartoons. We also do not consider illustrations, caricatures, or covers. We try to respond as soon as possible, but we do receive a large number of submissions. As of July 23, 2015, we no longer accept submissions via mail or e-mail; instead, please upload your work via Submittable. Any submissions that were sent via mail or e-mail before July 23rd will be read and responded to.

Other submissions: We regret that we cannot consider unsolicited Talk of the Town stories or other nonfiction.

Newsbreaks: Please send your submissions to To anonymously send a secure and private message or tip to members of The New Yorkers editorial staff, please use SecureDrop.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Memoir Junkie

I am a memoir junkie. My book group refuses to read them---we only read novels and the occasional short story collection. But I love memoir. I read it, I write it and I teach it. Many of my students are writing memoirs.  They are the people I discuss memoir with. My college friend Rachel Hoffman Greenwald asked me to list my favorite memoirs and another friend just asked for a few recommendations to take on vacation with her. Here's my list. I love adding to it so if you have recommendations, please let me know. 

Memoirs and Essay Collections:

Sherman Alexie, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, great memoir about Alexie’s relationship with his bipolar mother. He is a native American poet, recently accused of sexual harassment, but book is still great.
George Hodgman, Bettyville, wonderful memoir about gay former Vanity Fair writer who moves home to take care of his aging mother, who won't acknowledge his sexuality.
Paul Kalinithi, When Breath Becomes Air, memoir about young surgeon who has cancer.
Mary Karr, Lit, great memoir about Karr’s marriage, alcoholism and deeply flawed mother. Karr is a poet and teaches at Syracuse, she’s brilliant.
Mary Karr, Liar’s Club, great memoir about Karr’s childhood and relationship with father.
Adrienne Lieve, The Rules Do Not Apply, great memoir by bisexual New Yorker writer who miscarries in Eastern Europe.
Ariel Leve, An Abbreviated Life, writer’s NYC artist mother has borderline personality disorder.
Yiyun Li, Dear Friend, From My Life, I Write to You in Your Life, writer has nervous breakdown and writes her way out of it by reading and writing about great books.
Phillip Lopate, A Mother’s Tale, Lopate teaches creative non-fiction at Columbia, taped conversations with his mother before she died and wrote memoir about it.
Phillip Lopate, The Art of the Personal Essay---there are so many brilliant, devastating, hysterical and inspiring essays in here. Check out: Consolation to His Wife by Plutarch; Of a Monstrous Child by Michel de Montaigne; On Marriage by Robert Louis Stevenson; Going Out for a Walk by Max Beerbohm; The Death of the Moth by Virginia Woolf; Such, Such Were the Joys by George Orwell; Aunt Harriet by Hubert Butler; He and I by Natalia Ginzburg; Meatless Days by Sara Suleri; Once More to the Lake by E.B. White; Once a Tramp, Always, by MFK Fisher; Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin; Split at the Root by Adrienne Rich; Goodbye to All That by Joan Didion; Do He Have Your Number, Mr. Jeffrey? by Gayle Pemberton; Under the Influence by Scott Russell Sanders. This book is my bible and is especially helpful if you are writing your own memoir.
Joyce Maynard, The Best of Us, memoir about Maynard’s second marriage to nice man who dies.
Joyce Maynard, At Home in the World, memoir about Maynard’s affair with JD Salinger; she dropped out of Yale to go live with him in New Hampshire.
Glennon Doyle Melton, Love Warrior: Doyle Melton was bulimic, alcoholic, and unhappy in her marriage. She shares all. This book is hard to put down.
Glennon Doyle Melton, Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life. More from Melton. She writes about the challenges and ultimate deterioration of her marriage, as well as her emergence as a terrific writer. After the book was published, she married the two-time Olympic gold medalist and FIFA Women's World Cup Champion, Abby Wambach.
JR Moehringer, The Tender Bar. Great memoir about a guy who was raised by a single mother and grew up in a bar.
Dani Shapiro, Hourglass, Time, Memory, Marriage. Interesting, intimate look at author’s marriage. Shapiro also wrote Still Writing and Devotion. Still Writing is about her life as a writer, Devotion is about her search for spirituality.
JD Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Great memoir about a guy who grows up with drug addict mother and loving grandparents and becomes Marine/Yale law school-educated lawyer/venture capitalist, mentored by Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
Jennifer Weiner, Hungry Heart:  Adventures in Life, Love & Art. Wonderful collection of essays. Author’s father was mentally ill psychiatrist who became crack addict; author’s mother came out in middle age, after four kids. In addition to writing about her parents, Weiner writes about rowing crew at Princeton and getting thrown off the team for being overweight, the influence of John McPhee on her writing, her pregnancies and miscarriage, her kids, her marriage, her sister, her battles on Twitter and her beautiful, brilliant career as a novelist writing about and for women. I keep buying this book as gifts for people I love. Read it---you won't be sorry.
Surprisingly Good Celebrity Memoirs: My younger son David read these memoirs and I listened to them on Audible. It’s a total pleasure to listen to these people read their own work if you do have Audible.