Some Thoughts on the Pecularities of Inspiration

Inspiration is a tricky, capricious thing.  Or is it?  There are those who’d argue that inspiration isn’t capricious at all–that it hovers “out there,” waiting to be actively courted, waiting for any of us as writers (or artists or musicians, etc.), to grab hold and begin to use it.  We just have to see that little sparkle that alerts us it’s there.

Sometimes, it eludes our notice.  Sometimes the sparkle hits us in the face like a baseball–though I can’t say I’ve taken too many baseballs to the face in my life, and certainly not lately.  (I’ve taken my share of tennis balls to the face–but that’s beside the point.  This is not a post about sports injuries.)

I’ve always said I’m not an ideas person.  I don’t see possibilities and connections the way I wish I did (the way geniuses seem to).  Inspiration might stare me in the face sometimes, and I’m off looking at a bird that’s soaring by, or a tree whose branches waver on the wind in some melody I can’t quite catch.  (Hello! Inspiration yells, why do you think I put that bird and tree in front of you? You dummy!) My point is, I’m not paying attention.

So inspiration, I think, is really about paying attention to your surroundings, getting caught in a rhythm, and adapting yourself to what that rhythm means.  How do we do that?  As poets and artists, we’re supposed to be hypersensitive to our surroundings anyway.  Aren’t we supposed to feel more deeply than the rest of society?  Aren’t we supposed to notice the certain play of light through the leaves on  the cherry tree outside our door and be moved to lyricism?  Well, maybe.

Maybe for some people, that actually works.  For myself, I think being in tune with that rhythm means to cut out a lot of extraneous noise from my life so I can actually hear that rhythm, see that sparkle.  Of course, everyone always says this.  And it’s hard.

For me, disconnecting with the world means disconnecting from the news, and Facebook, and stupid binge-a-thons on Netflix, and my Sudoku habit.  It means reading more–whether it’s new journals that have arrived in my mailbox, or reading the other authors’ works (fiction and nonfiction too, not just the poetry) in the journals that my own work appears in.  It means allowing myself the pleasure of reading a Phryne Fisher mystery (thank you, Kerry Greenwood, for giving us Phryne) so I can indulge in language used well, and fall in love with a place and characters who are real.

I know this is not new.  For heaven’s sakes, Wordsworth was saying the world was too much with us back in 1802.  But the world is hella more complicated in 2015, which makes it all the more essential to get away from it if we want to be true to our art.  (Or at least, if we want to recharge our flagging art.)

I’ve been thinking for a quite a while that I’ve needed to go to a writer’s residency somewhere.  I had actually even applied to one for the summer–and mistakenly believed I’d get in–and of course, everyone knows, throwing all your eggs into one basket is the surest way to making scrambled eggs.  But even if that didn’t work out, there are other residencies, other writers conferences that can help me to reconnect with writing.

I think a residency is one way to actively court inspiration.  Meeting with new writers, inhabiting a new space for a while, getting out of the routine of our daily existence–this is all about finding that new rhythm.  Certainly not everyone can afford the luxury of a writer’s residency (I mean, I can’t really either, but whatever)–but those rhythms are all around us.  We can hear them when we disconnect. We can hear them when we start reading one of our books from our never-ending “books to read” pile.  We can hear them when we sit on top of Stone Mountain, or if we’re taking a walk on a wooded path.  We can hear those rhythms everywhere if we give ourselves a chance.

Inspiration wants us to find it.  It does expect us to work a little, of course, to get outside ourselves a little, so we can see it, and benefit from what it has to show us.  Inspiration wants to include us.  It wants us to get into its rhythm.  We don’t have to be “ideas” people to get access–we just have to be a little more open-eared and flexible.

And maybe that seems harder than it really is because we’re too tied to our devices and routines.  But I for one am going to try to slip into that rhythm, because it’s calling me.

Brand, Shmand… and a Promise

Robert Lee Brewer has been doing an eight-part series on blogging and promotions with the effect of building your own personal brand.  It’s a pretty good series and it offers points worth considering, particularly in blogging “professionally” which is not something I do.  (Though it’s something I should do, probably.)

But somehow the notion of “corporatizing” my writing makes my stomach turn–oh, just a little bit.  Of course, I would like to have more than one reader for this blog.  (I am presuming, these days, that I am my only reader, which is clearly not ideal.)

After all, it seems kind of pointless to keep a blog (and pay for an Internet domain name) when only one person reads it.  It’s not as if I’m writing a personal-personal (all my deepest darkest secrets) kind of blog, the kind where I don’t actually want anyone to know I’m writing.  My goal, realistically, is to develop a true following—not just for this blog but for my poetry and nonfiction–my “real” writing.

The goal for my little-vain-voice-in-my-head is for people to say, “Hmm, what does that eminently awesome writer JC think about X?”  instead of “Who cares?  Who is she anyway?”  Clearly I need to make some adjustments in my thinking if I want to have a readership.

To be fair, much of what Brewer says is designed to sell Writer’s Market/ Writer’s Digest products.  I’m not trying to sell anything–but myself, in a manner of speaking.  “So, what is the JC Reilly brand?” she asks, scratching her head in confusion and dismay.

I have been described as “secretly hilarious” as well as a “diffident wise-ass.”  I don’t think I can make a brand out of either of those descriptions.  (Like if it were a logo, what would that even look like on a shirt?  The only thing coming to me is a little chubby butt wearing some eyeglasses and that’s just not a logo you can be proud of.)

Somehow the idea of a person having a brand is just so gross and capitalistic.  But then so much of publishing is marketing, so therein lies the conundrum.  I want to have a  brand so that others recognize me… and yet every fiber of my being rebels at that business-like approach to creating my public persona.  I have to give it some real thought.  I need to get past the “bleah” factor and embrace the notion of brand.

But in the meantime, I’m going to do what Robert Lee Brewer suggests, on a little scale, and decide on an Editorial Calendar.  This is my promise:  I will post at least every Wednesday for the next several weeks and see how it goes.  I’ll have to figure out a point for those blog posts (which is always a challenge for me), but if I blog at least regularly once a week, perhaps I’ll develop that readership I crave.  And, the best part is, I’ll develop the habit of writing a frequent blog so that people may indeed come to expect JC’s words of wisdom (or otherwise, let’s be honest), and actually look forward to reading what I have to say.

(And bonus—once I start getting readers, they might suggest things in their comments that will help me know what to write about.)

(The wheels are always turning.)

The Dilemma of a Personalized Rejection

Recently, I got a rejection on a flash story I had written, but it was personalized.  In fact, the editors explained that the reason they rejected it was that they thought the story missed a comic opportunity to explore the absurdity of the situation as presented in the story—that one of the main characters had much more life in her than just 500 words could show.

I really appreciate that they offered this bit of critique, because I wouldn’t have considered that maybe her life does need to be a short story.  In my mind, I was mainly thinking that the story was about her mother, and how she had to deal with a magical pregnancy.  But I could see that maybe the story is about the daughter—or maybe it should be.

I haven’t written a revision of the story yet.  I don’t know many fiction writers, and so I find I’m not sure what would be a good way to expand.   When I teach creative writing (like I am right now), it’s so easy to see the directions and possibilities that my student’s stories offer.  Easy? It’s generally obvious.

But of course we’re all blind when it comes to our own writing.  I find that, thinking about the daughter, I’m not sure what she should do.  Does she have dialogue?  What is her life like, when she’s abandoned her mother practically right after her birth, and she becomes a reality TV star?  What happens to her mother, who has to join a support group for mothers whose children have abandoned them?

There’s one person on campus whom I can ask what he thinks—he’s a fiction writer, and once, when I brought him a creative nonfiction story I had written, he gave it the most amazing reading and response I’ve ever received—like he lived with the story, and saw so many places for revision and connection that frankly I was embarrassed by the riches of his generosity and spirit and writerly insight.

I don’t know that anyone has looked at my writing the way he did.  I had the thought, that he must be an unbelievably fantastic teacher.  If he gives all student work the same attention that he gave my story, students must just be in awe of him.  Like I am.  (I would give a shout out to him here, but I don’t want him to be inundated with requests by hungry writers looking for critique gold.)

I am thinking of asking him for some suggestions on my flash piece… though I can’t help feeling a little greedy doing it… like I am taking something precious from him.  Which he freely offered, I know.  But still.  Perhaps, I can repay him in coffee and muffins…

Queen of Analog

I am a huge proponent of index cards.  I have been tracking my submissions to journals and contests on alphabetized index cards for years.  Some years, there are fewer cards in the box than others (though last year and this year, there are a ton).  I like that I can thumb through them, find what I’m looking for, and move on.  I like their tactile quality, that I can hold them and smell their papery-ness, that I have tangible proof at all times that I am working on publishing.

I keep my pack of cards with me in my purse or bag—I sometimes joke, à la Gollum, that the cards are “My Precious.”  They are precious to me, like a talisman or a charm, and I don’t like to be far from them.  It sounds a little wacky, but then, writers are by definition, wacky folk, so I don’t let my little partiality to (I won’t say “obsession with”) the cards bother me.

The red plastic case that holds them has the space for about 120 3x5s.  Inside, there’s a tab for Sent, Rejected, Accepted.  When I’m feeling like I need a boost, I just look through the cards and tell myself, “JC, you are working it.”  Seeing the Sent and Accepted piles is naturally pleasing (and self-affirming), but I even like the Rejected tab, because after I look for some new journals, I will mine the cards in there for submissions that I can send somewhere else.  And I don’t have to think about what pieces go with what, because the submission groupings have already been created—I’m just reusing the card with new journal title on the top.  Easy peasy.

But this is all by way of saying, that in February, I bit the bullet and got a Duotrope subscription, due in part to a young writer friend who mentioned that he was going to subscribe in order to take his writing more seriously, and that getting a subscription to Duotrope was one way he could feel “professional” about the work.  I thought about that and could see his point.  For myself, I wondered if I could justify the expense; after all, I already subscribed to Allison Joseph’s CRWROPPS list in Yahoo Groups, and got a weekly digest from the New Pages website.  So did I really need a Duotrope subscription?  It turns out, I did.

Now, let me be very clear, that I am in no way shilling for Duotrope—they haven’t promised me a free subscription for next year if I tout all their great qualities or anything.  But I like Duotrope for a number of reasons (and not just for the submission tracker element): I like to see the Response List—it’s quite illuminating about the journal process because people who subscribe are really serious about entering this data.  So you’ll see, for instance, one day, BOAAT will have accepted one person’s work, and there will be 15 rejections, or 32Poems will have accepted one or two pieces, and there’s a ton of rejections.  What it helps to do, in my mind, is to let me see the reality of the journal process—I’m not the only one getting rejections here.  It helps to see that other people’s work also is rejected—not from a “ha ha haha ha” schadenfreude perspective, but more like a “we’re all in this together” perspective.

The other thing about Duotrope that I like is that it is constantly updating when markets are open or closed as well as listing new markets that are available.  Having an academic background (and having worked as a reader on Prairie Schooner back in the day), you kind of have a sense that a lot of journals at university presses take the summer off.  But other journals have different submission cycles, so Duotrope is handy in that they let you know when these cycles are happening.

And finally, Duotrope offers metrics for lots of stuff—because people take a few minutes to record data about their submissions, I have an idea about how long it takes some markets to respond.  I’ll give you an example.  Last May (of 2014!!), I submitted poems to a journal and I just never heard from them–until I queried them in December and said, hey, what’s the deal?  I was told by a very harried editor that this was a Name Brand Journal, and they were Very Busy, and I just needed to wait.  And so I did.  Wait, wait, wait.  I finally got a rejection from them on June 10th—a 384 day wait, according to Duotrope.  The average response time for this market is 155 days; the longest reported was 401 days.  I wouldn’t know that, except that Duotrope offers that data.

Now, it’s probably obvious that I’ve become a fan of Duotrope.  I record my submissions and responses there; I look up new markets (and have had some acceptances directly because I found them on Duotrope)… but I still keep my cards.  Because they’re mine.  Because they’re easy to hold onto and easy to maintain, and I don’t need a computer to check on them.  I can keep My Precious with me at all times, and remind myself when I need to, that I’m doing what I can to get my writing out into the world.

Well, But One Acceptance Is Better than None at All, Right? So Quitcherbitchin.

I recently had the experience where I received an acceptance for two pieces of flash creative non-fiction.  To say I was delighted would be an understatement, particularly because the journal was one in which I’ve discovered many pieces that have moved me in one way or the other since I began reading it.  And I thought, hooray!  My writing will be archived among these paragons of the short form!  I was feeling pretty pleased with myself.

Then the other day, the journal contacted me about the galleys, asking me to look over the work and see if anything were amiss.  But they only sent me the link to one of the pieces they accepted.  So I inquired—what happened to the second piece?  Shouldn’t they have sent me the galley to it?

The CNF editor apologized, but said that clearly Submittable had made an error, and really, they only meant to take Piece A, not Piece A and Piece B.  They hoped I was ok with this, and they hoped Piece A was still available.

I’m not sure if the editor thought I might hold Piece A hostage—like, “You said you were going to publish both, and if you can’t publish both, you can’t publish either, nyah, nyah, nyah.”  I’m not so stupid that I would do that—an acceptance is an acceptance.  But it made me wonder if she had had that experience before, where she or one of the other editors had a Submittable “glitch” which accepted multiple pieces from an author only to have to break it to the author that there must have been some error with Submittable that day, and they only desired to publish one piece.  I could understand an author choosing to say, “To hell with that journal!  If they can’t even be clear about the works they want to publish, maybe I don’t want my work published there.”

I understand about computer errors, and software glitches, and even human mistakes—I get that.  Computers are machinery and bound to fail at some point, and editors have a lot on their plates and don’t always catch things.  But it’s hard, when you’re hungry to start racking up pubs in a different genre than you’re used to publishing in, to have an acceptance snatched away from you like that.  Part of me wishes that they would just have agreed to publish both works, since that’s what they said—and since I withdrew Piece B from all the journals I had sent it to, like a good little simultaneous submitter should do.  But then another part of me thinks I’d rather the work they didn’t want find a home in a journal that loves it for what it is—and not feel constrained to publish it under duress.

I’m trying really hard to see the multiple perspectives here.  I am grateful, of course, that they wanted to take any of my work at all.  That should be enough right?  Mistakes happen, blah blah—at least they wanted one piece—they could have told me the entire acceptance was a mistake.  But I’m stubborn and don’t want to be reasonable about this situation—particularly in light of some other recent (huge) writing rejections that have really demoralized me.  A little part of me feels like this “accidental” acceptance scenario is just too much to take.

I know, I know, this is the publishing biz.  I’m just having a little difficulty being rational while I wallow in my self-pity.

Today’s Zentangle… and a Thought

Zentangle 031815

Today I wasted over two good hours of my life that I’ll never get back dealing with people who didn’t want to be dealt with.  I got angsty and upset, and really, that just means they win.  So I came home and did this tangle to de-tangle my brain.  They call Zentangles meditative art, and they work.  If you haven’t tried doing them, you should. (You can get books about them at Amazon.)

Anyone can do them–I feel much calmer than I did earlier.  It doesn’t fix what still needs to be fixed, but I guess some things just happen in their own time.