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5 Q's with Jody Mace

Jody Mace has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Skirt! Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and many more magazines. She has also contributed essays on parenting to the It's a Boy and It's a Girl anthologies. Read her tips on improving your writing…
Urban Muse: Tell us about the first essay you sold. How did you go from inspiration to publication?
I might have started freelancing in a sort of unusual way, because I sold the first two essays I wrote right away. I was a stay-at-home mom and had taken a poetry class at the local university because my brain needed a little bit of exercise. In the first two essays I wrote, I used phrasings and ideas from poetry I had written. Poetry is a great thing for essay writers to do, because each word has so much responsibility and power. It teaches you to write tight. One essay was about my daughter trying to fly, and I sold that to Mothering. The second essay was about seeing my kids’ abuse of their Barbies as a feminist statement (although I didn’t use those words.) That one was published in Brain, Child Magazine. I think I was just very lucky that the right editors at the right time read those essays. I knew very little about writing essays and absolutely nothing about the freelance business.
UM: Any tips on juggling family and writing?
Juggling family and writing can be a real challenge. For writers who have very young children there’s the physical aspect of it. You’ve got to get the kids fed and keep them from sticking their fingers in electrical outlets. My kids are older, 9 and 12, so I don’t have those issues quite as much. What I find challenging now is the mental aspect of it. I have trouble turning off my “writing mind” when I’m doing things with my family. Essay writing is often about finding the connections between everyday events, and I’m always thinking, “What’s the story here?” or “This could be part of an essay.” I’ve sometimes had to write down ideas on the backs of receipts in my jacket pocket and then say, “OK, now I’m really here.” Finding time to write is difficult too, because I spend a lot of time at my kids’ school, working in their library and teaching writing. So I end up writing late at night a lot. I probably don’t get enough sleep. Maybe that’s not a very good tip! But I do get my writing done. (The dishes are another matter.)
How have you dealt with people who provide excellent material for essays but don’t want to read about themselves in print? Has this ever caused tension with family or friends?
Many of my essays are about my kids and they’re definitely at an age where they know what I’m writing about and have an opinion about it. If they really don’t want me to write about something, I won’t do it, or at least won’t sell it. I did write about one fairly sensitive subject and used a pseudonym. But I have to admit that I’ve paid them off a couple of times. They came up with the idea that if I’m getting paid for an essay about them that they deserve a cut of it for being the subject of it. They’re quite shrewd, my kids (ed. note: no kidding, that's hilarious). Usually they like what I write about them. I think it’s because I make more fun of myself than I do of them.

As far as friends, I’ve asked them, “Hey, I want to mention you in this essay. It’s not too bad. It’s funny. Is it OK?” I’ve never had someone say no yet. It might be different if I wasn’t writing with humor.

I’m not really willing to sell an essay that makes someone (besides me) look bad, especially if that person is easily identifiable. It’s just not worth it. That means that there are some stories I’d really like to write that I don’t, at least for now. But I do take notes.
UM: Who gave you the best advice on writing? What was it?
Soon after I sold my first two essays I came across an essay column in FamilyFun Magazine called “Family Ties.” The column doesn’t exist anymore, but it was a good read – about some aspect of family life that brought you close to your family. I decided I wanted to write an essay for it so I mailed one to the editor, Kathy Whittemore (now with Wondertime.) She emailed back a rejection but said that she’d like to read more of my writing. So I sent her one essay after another, for about a year and a half. With each one that she rejected she, incredibly generously, told me why. It was a crash course in essay writing. She told me about revelation – how you should end up in a “different place” than where you start. She talked about the balance of anecdote and reflection in essays and how there has to be a “payoff” for the reader – some universal point besides it being a funny story. My advice to beginning writers is to look at every personalized rejection you get from an editor as a gift.
UM: Could you recommend some summer reading books?
Jennifer Niesslein’s Practically Perfect In Every Way is a lot of fun. She writes about her journey through the world of self help. I’m too lazy to try any self-help programs (I tried FlyLady for about 3 days before her nagging e-mails made me feel guilty and I quit) so reading “Practically Perfect” is about as close as I’ll ever get to actual self improvement.

The next book on my nightstand is A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. And I never pass up the opportunity to recommend my favorite novel ever, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.

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5 Q's with Jody Mace + writers on writing