In Which the Author of this Post Expresses Her Deep and Abiding Admiration for Alexander Hamilton and Broadway Musicals about Our First Secretary of the Treasury

A little more than a month has passed since my last blog.  I’d like to say I’ve been using the time in a worthwhile way—writing new work, perhaps, or reading a bunch of new books of poetry to shore me up in preparation for teaching creative writing this summer.  But the fact is, I’ve gone crazy for Hamilton (the Broadway musical that was just nominated for a record-breaking 162016-05-11 17.34.28 Tony Awards—for those of you living under a rock).

It’s all I think about.  I stay up late watching YouTube videos about anything about the musical—I recommend Leslie Odom, Jr.’s video where he responds to comments and questions on Facebook, and Lin-Manuel Miranda on Jimmy Fallon for the Wheel of Freestyle bit, or any of the #HamforHam videos— just coast from video to video to your heart’s content.  (While I’m at it, I also suggest watching the video of “My Shot,” which was performed at the White House.)  I listen to the soundtrack constantly—I haven’t listened to NPR in my car since the beginning of April—I don’t have time, because I want to get in as many songs as I can on the trip back and forth to work (also, I don’t care to hear anything about stupid Donald Trump [or warmongering imperialist oligarch Hilary Clinton, while I’m at it], and I assume anything election-related will mention those worthies).  If I wake up in the middle of the night, some lines from somewhere in the musical are floating in my head.  Or, if someone says something to me, I can think of a perfect line from Hamilton in response—and I desperately want to sing it to them.  (Really, try me… post a comment below, and I’ll respond with the perfect line.) I also can’t help myself from thinking about writing Hamilton fanfic.  Not that I would… but sometimes I imagine writing it.  Like, I totally want to write some Hamilton/Laurens slash—I don’t know why.  I comb websites (especially tumblr) for anything Ham-related.  It’s insane.  Or, if I read anything in the “Hamiltome” (The Hamilton Revolution), I can’t just read the lyrics on the lyrics pages, I hear the songs sung in my brain… breaking only to read the notes on individual lines.

It’s also all I dream about.  Last night, for instance, I dreamed two separate Hamilton dreams.  In the first one, I dreamed that Lin-Manuel Miranda invited me to audition, and I was supposed to sing/rap any song from the second act.  While it’s true that I don’t know the words to the second act as well as I do to the first one, I know enough that I could totally have aced the audition—I would have chosen “Cabinet Battle #1” for the audition, by the way—which I know 100%.  Except when they gave me the list of songs from the second act to choose from, they weren’t anything I recognized.  (A variation on a “failing the test” dream, I guess?)  In the second dream, I was drawing fan art of Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson. (I want to include an image, but they’re all copyrighted—just Google “Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson”… if you see a man in a purple velvet/velour suit, you’ll know who I’m talking about).  I have never drawn a fan art of anything in my entire life.  (Mainly because I don’t draw.)  But it kind of makes me want to sit down and try.

Additionally, 2016-05-11 17.30.31-1I’ve been reading Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography; I’m on p. 580 (out of 738 pages + notes), and I go around reporting on what Hamilton has done “the night before”—i.e. what I read the night before in the biography, I report on.  “Did you know… blah blah Hamilton blah blah?”  (Did you know that Hamilton got Yellow Fever?  Did you know Hamilton was made a General under Washington, who came back from retirement at 66, when it seemed that the U.S. was going to go to war with France?  Did you know that everyone in President John Adams’ cabinet supported Hamilton, and John Adams had no idea?  Etc., etc.)  If I haven’t reported a “Hamilfact” to you, it’s probably because you and I haven’t crossed paths any time recently.  And, if you know me at all, you know two things:  1) I don’t read biographies; and 2) I don’t read anything longer than like 300 pages (Harry Potter notwithstanding).  But I’m making good progress in Chernow.  And one of these days soon, I plan to catch up with the Hamilcast, which is a podcast about the musical and Chernow’s biography.  It’s on my list.

So, maybe you wonder why I’ve become obsessed with Hamilton—besides that it’s just a great musical and there are so many great lines in it (and it’s great hiphop with so many great rhymes in it) (all written by Lin-Manuel Miranda)—it’s because Hamilton was a copious, obsessed writer.  These lines from “Non-Stop” describing Hamilton say it all:  “Why do you write like you’re running out of time/ Write day and night like you’re running out of time/ Every day you fight like you’re running out of time…”  One of the things that Chernow goes on and on about is how Hamilton just couldn’t stop writing—when he could write one essay, he’d write ten—or more.  The Federalist Papers (essays that defended the Constitution to the public) were supposed to be 25 essays, with him having written like eight.  But indeed, there were 85 essays, and Hamilton wrote 59 of them in six months.  (I can barely write 3 poems in six months, it seems.  Ok, I’m being disingenuous—I’m a little more dedicated than that, but you take my point.)

Even his essay, the Reynolds Pamphlet (a.k.a. Observations on Certain Documents Contained in No. V & VI of the “History of the United States for 1796,” in Which the Charge of Speculation Against Alexander Hamilton, Late Secretary of the Treasury, Is Fully Refuted.  Written by Himself.) where he falls on his sword to assure the public that he only slept around, he did NOT engage in illegal speculation with the banks (he was overly scrupulous with American money and wanted people to know he never abused his position as Secretary of the Treasury), was 95 pages long.  95 pages!  95 pages to basically explain that he’s very sorry that he was a sex addict who stepped out on his wife (while also responding to other things in the pamphlet History…for 1796 by James Thompson Callender, like American Jacobism—but still) (see Chernow p. 533).  It blows my mind.  He wrote poems, letters, reports, dispatches, plans, essays on everything—as well as created things like our banking system and the Treasury, and coming up with the idea for West Point and the Coast Guard and starting the New York Post…and, and, and…  Hamilton was a genius, and the musical celebrates that he was writer and that he wrote just as soon as breathe, and that is something I admire.  I wish I could be that prolific—or maybe even a quarter as prolific.  Or a tenth. (A hundredth?)

(I think Chernow mentioned that there are 27 volumes of collected works by Hamilton—and of course there’s probably more than that that didn’t survive.  The collection, The Complete Works of Alexander Hamilton: The Federalist, The Continentalist, A Full Vindication, The Adams Controversy, The Jefferson Controversy, Military … (26 Books With Active Table of Contents) is available for Kindle for $1.99.  I might have to get that.  Except I hate reading books of any quality on the Kindle—because I can’t take notes.) (Seems to me I remember that excerpts from The Federalist [a.k.a. The Federalist Papers] appeared in the Norton Anthology of American Literature—back then, when the Norton was practically surgically attached to my hand, the thought of reading any kind of writing from the Revolutionary era sounded about as dry as dirt.  Now I’m like, gimme gimme.  I’ll read it all.)

I liken my love for all things Hamilton to a kind of crush.  I sort of fall in love with things for a while—like anime, or manga, or zentangles, or TV shows like Murdoch Mysteries and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (remember when I burned through all of Kelly Greenwood’s Phryne books like I was in a race?), and then the interest doesn’t wane exactly, it just becomes more manageable.  I don’t see my Hamilton crush cooling any time soon, though.  I mean, I’m even considering watching the Tony Awards show… and I never watch Awards shows because they are full of bluster and balderdash…and commercials… but I will probably totally watch them on June 12th.  Anything for a glimpse of Hamilton… Since I won’t be going to New York any time soon.  (And even if I could, who can afford $756 for a shitty nosebleed seat?  Plus airfare and hotel and food for a weekend?  New York ain’t cheap.)

Anyway, join me in Hamilmania… Do not “throw away your shot” to download the soundtrack to the musical, watch some videos, and fall in love with Alexander Hamilton. (And then let’s hang out and we can wax effusive about Hamilton together!)

Writing and Dithering

The second Hecate Applebough book (sans title, at the mo), grueling though it was to write, is completed, and I feel a sense of accomplishment about that.  It took longer to write, probably because I wasn’t on the high of NaNoWriMo, and of course, Christmas and New Year’s and the beginning of a new semester intervened, and there’s just a lot of things you have to get done at the end of the year, making writing another novel difficult.  (That sounds so pretentious right, “another novel.”  Gag me.)  I still have to tweak a couple of scenes before I will be satisfied with it as a first draft.  (Although of course no one is satisfied with first drafts, but you know what I mean.).  And I might have to seriously reconsider some other scenes which I know why I wrote them the way I did, but I don’t love them, and they need fixing.

But I knew I had to get Hecate Applebough 2 done so I could start the third one, which I’ve done in the last few days—and somehow I have a good feeling about this one.  Like I’m going to try to make it much more lighthearted, more comic.  I think that was my problem with the second one—it was like a goddamned angstfest—NOBODY was happy in the entire book.  I kept just making everyone miserable—like, it was a contest with myself:  how much can I screw with Cate’s life?  Just how twisted can I make her relationships?  Can I make some of the minor characters sad?  Yes?  Great!  And kind of what I wound up doing was making myself miserable in the process.

Don’t get me wrong, while I’m my own worst critic, and by the very nature of breathing, I assume everything I write is utter and total crap, there are “moments of possibility” in it, but the moments of pure dreck outweigh the possibilities of goodness.  I keep thinking, if I were Cate, and that was my life, I would probably swear off men forever and become a hermit.  The men in her life really are just fucked up—I wasn’t totally being funny when I joked about naming the second book Hecate Applebough and the Fucked Up Men in Her Life, because they are just such drama queens and so needy and complicated.  Honestly, I don’t know Cate stands me.  She must think I’m a total bitch to keep putting her in these stupid, angsty situations with men who don’t know what they want.

Which is why, as I said in a recent tweet, I need to let this book mellow.  Because it’s very raw, and it’s very overemotional—not like melodrama, but yeah, kind of sudsy at points.  I need that time away so I can come back to it fresh.  And maybe with some distance I can figure out what I really wanted to do with that second book and see if I can’t get it more there than it is right now.  (Of course, it will need substantial revision—I just want it to be a good first draft that will make revision be something hard but worthwhile instead of painful just to get to ok-ish-ness.)

And writing the third one will help me a lot because I am determined to make it fun.  Cate needs a break from constantly having her life explode in her face—and I need a break from that too.  I suppose, all fiction authors are either consciously or unconsciously trying to work out the crap of their own lives, and it manifests in the lives of their characters.  I know that I’m working through some issues—that sort of became obvious in the second book, because Cate is always thwarted, she always thinks things are settling down and then, hello, some tragedy or another happens and she’s back down in the sewer trying to dig her way out.  And that’s kind of how I feel my life is.  Of course, I don’t have two hot guys vying for my affections, so I can’t relate to her on that level (alas and alack—that might be a fun problem to have!), but that’s just a mask for the angsty things going on my life, I think. (So personal life spoiler alert:  I have problems and bad things are happening.  And who suffers?  Cate.)

Anyway, not to give away too much about the plot, but the third book already is starting with the comic premise that Cate, Val, and Lonny are all going to visit her Dad in Nebraska for Spring Break.  Book 3 starts on the airplane and I had a good time writing Val and Lonny sniping at each other and Cate just rolling her eyes, and now they’re in Nebraska and she’s dealing with her stepmother and her infant brother, and the change of scenery, away from Sunderson Academy and the Study Salon, is doing me a lot of good.  I’m really hoping that I can sustain the humor because Cate deserves a little happiness after what I’ve put her through.  But on the other hand, it wouldn’t be Cate’s life if it were charmed.  So I have to figure out how much I can torture her and still keep the majority of the book breezy.

In other news, I admit that I’m still vacillating back and forth whether to share Book 1 with Brilliant Fiction Writing Friend.  He’s super persuasive, with his metaphorical chisel that chips away at my protests (plus his company is awesome).  My insecurity, however, is equally persuasive—pugnacious, even (which means it usually wins out when I have these “what if” wars in my head).  But he said something to me the other day that—guilted isn’t the right word—tipped the balance in his favor a little more, let’s say—something about making editing a part of his professional development, and that my book would help him work on those skills.  And frankly, when he pitches it like that, and I can see letting him read HA1 not as an opportunity to deprive him of time he could be writing, were he so inclined, but as opportunity for him to grow in a way he’s interested in growing, well, how can I turn that down?  That would just be mean of me.  And of course, if he didn’t have my book to read, he has other people whom he could help, so it’s not like he’ll languish if I said no (and really meant it).  So, why not let him help me, right?  But…blah blah blah.  Shut up, JC. (Can’t you for once just accept good fortune?)  (Not easily.) (OMG OMG OMG, I realize, I write this blog the same way Cate writes her diary—I’m such a headcase.) (Please send help.)

Anyway, apropos of nothing, please enjoy a picture of sleepy TimToms, who has been keeping me company today as I’ve been writing.

2016-01-30 16.28.27

Report on NaNoWriMo, Week 3

I unearthed a folder of—I guess you’d call it juvenilia—a bunch of poems and stories that I started writing when I took my first creative writing class in college.  I had high hopes of mining this old (crappy) work for stuff I could appropriate as material for my two main characters in my NaNo, both of whom are poets.  I was thinking that the style I had when I was much younger might be appropriate to two teenagers, new-ish to writing, the way I was when I wrote it.  But the fact is, my juvenilia is godawful.  (Well, the poems are.  The stories don’t suck that bad—probably because they are SF, and I used to read a lot of quality SF, so I had good influences impacting my writing.)

But the poems?  Holy Cow.

And yet, I bet when I was much younger I probably thought my writing was awesome.  Like sometimes, as I’m flipping through this folder, I’m so clever in my word play, I’m OBNOXIOUS AF.  I was trying to find one of the poems that I could reproduce here to demonstrate how deliciously bad I was, but I actually am too embarrassed to show any of that stuff.

If I had any sense, I’d burn it all.

Ok, well, here’s a “This is Just to Say” parody I wrote, which is a little funny and not so appalling that I’ll have to hang my head in shame for sharing it:

Wm. Carlos Wms.-esque

This is just to tell you

that the plums
you ate were
actually
small grenades
which I was
saving
for when your
mother comes

Forgive me
that was mean
you’re so dead
and so cold

(Though I would probably line it a little differently now.)

Anyway, all of this is by way of saying, I’m still plugging away at my novel, although it’s dreadfully long-winded, and not making the progress I’d like it to be making—not in the sense of words, because I’ve got more than plenty of them.   But rather, since it’s framed as a diary, and I envisioned that I would be encapsulating the entire school year in it, I’m kind of annoyed that I’m not further along than November.  (When I started the book with August.)  I don’t think it’s boring (but then do authors ever really think their own writing is boring?)—though a good beta reader would probably strike out whole diary entries as being immaterial to the plot. (Which it probably needs.)

I also keep reminding myself that the upper end word count of a YA novel is 69,999 words, and I should just remember this isn’t a Victorian novel where publishers paid by the word.  But whatever—I can’t worry about that, when what I really need to think about is keeping on and figuring out how I’m going to resolve Cate’s life.

Also—since I think it’s a romance, who is Cate going to end up with?  Is it Val or is it Lonny? Or is it a dark horse, like Finian?  (Or is Finian actually gay?)  I like all these guys in her life for different reasons—and she likes them all too.

Which actually just reminds me how much of a bad fiction writer I really am.  Because maybe Cate is really just me—or what I could have been like if I were cool in high school—and maybe these guys are really just fantasy guys I imagined—the Mary Sue factor is pretty damn high.

And maybe that’s something I’ve realized about writing a novel—I mean, I knew it was hard, but what’s really hard is divorcing my brain, and my thinking, and even my writing patterns (which, I’m sure you’ve noticed in these blogs tends to be parenthetical and interrupting).

In a little flash fiction piece, of only say, 500-600 words, I feel like my writing can be so much more imaginative, and so much more not me.  Initially, I thought my novel was going to be “so not me” too—I might even have used that term in an earlier blog—and yet as I go back over it, I think, well, the stuff in this book may not have actually happened, but I’m still, somehow, writing my life.  Cate sounds like me.  Like she’s a 40 year old…stuck in a 15 year old’s body.

That just may be bad writing at its finest.

But I’m not discouraged, because I like Cate.  I like her Mom.  I like her teachers, especially Professor Khaniff.  I like Val and Finian, and I’m pretty sure I’m totally in love with Lonny the way Cate is.  Even if he’s kind of a dumbass.  Because he is a sensitive writer who has the grand vision, who won’t be defeated on the macro scale even if he pouts on the micro scale when things go wrong.  He’s…ebullient.  Which is so alien to me, and so very beautiful.

Anyway, there are still 12 days in the month to go.  I have no doubt that I will get my 50,000 words—and probably a lot more, since I plan to write like a fiend over Thanksgiving.  (When I’m not cooking a feast.)

I hope any of my Five Loyal Readers, if you too are doing NaNoWriMo, that you are experiencing good success, and that your characters continue to delight you, the way mine are.

Report on NaNoWriMo, Week 2

At nearly 19,000 words, I feel like I am making great progress on my “novel,” and I’ve been thinking about what to do when I actually finish it.  Of course, we all have grand designs about writing the next Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (a book I loved when I read it a couple of years ago because it was funny and it was set at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln) and which I recently found out originated as a NaNoWriMo novel).  I know, deep down, however, that I won’t be writing the Next Big Thing.

What is more likely is this:  I plan to revise my book and get some feedback (I have a couple of people who have agreed to read it once it’s done–they must have a masochistic streak), and then, I think (unless they rave about it, and encourage me to MASSIVELY revise and think of publications, which also ain’t likely), I’m going to release on Amazon for 99 cents.

For 99 cents, I’ve read some pretty damn decent books.  I mean, I wouldn’t pay more than 99 cents for them, but for a couple of books (that had an interesting premise and characters who sounded reasonable), 99 cents was money well spent.  I have every confidence that my book is certainly worth 99 cents.

So… that’s what I’m thinking, at least this week.

Anyway, I’ll have more to say soon–but I was really busy with grading and with tennis tonight, I haven’t had a chance to write, and I’d like to get some words knocked away if I could.  (But first I really need a shower… I have some serious tennis funk going on.)

(I know you really needed to know that.) (xo)

Report on NaNoWriMo, Week 1

I’m just going to say it:  so far, NaNoWriMo is going great for me.  I’m doing everything wrong, everything I remind my students, ad nauseam, not to do—I’m telling more than showing, cheaping out on sensory description, failing to use character tags as effectively as I could, lollygagging (emphasis on gagging, I expect) with my dialogue, using adverbs a little more heavy-handedly than I ought.  And it’s FUCKING AMAZING  how much you can get written when you just don’t worry about MAKING ART.

I’m having a GREAT time.  I love every damn flawed word I write.  It’s so much fun to just focus on plot and vomit words down on the page—and to know that I can delay the revision process till much later, if I want.  Or not at all.  There’s a heady freedom knowing that there’s no stakes attached to this “novel.” I don’t agonize over the words the way I do when I’m writing poems, or even my “real” stories—here, I’m just racking up the word count.  If I can’t think of a more elegant word for when my character feels emotionally bankrupt and friendless and dorky, she just says she feels “crappy.”  And I’m totally ok with that.

Why?  Partly because she’s a teenager, and teenagers are not particularly known for their emotional depth and elegance in articulating the way they feel.  Partly because I know that this “novel” is an exercise in stamina and persistence.  And partly because I know that even if I write the lousiest, lamest, most derivative novel this November, that’s ok.  Because it’s practice writing.  It’s making me sit down every day and prioritize my writing over everything else.  And face it, that’s what we writers need to do.

And you know what else?  I would love my friends to read this novel when it’s done—because it’s cool in its way—and its aesthetic is so not me (at least I don’t think so) that it would be interesting to see what my friends think.  The way sharing writing with friends used to be—something you did for fun (instead of something you did because you’re concerned with publication)… Geez, when you have no expectations about publishing, you’re crazy free—like going to Kroger in a skimpy tank top and no bra when you’re a 46DD kind of free.

Something else I like about this novel is that it’s definitely not like most young adult fiction that seems determined to be depressing, dystopic, and dysfunctional.  This is about a girl at a new high school who likes to write poetry and who finds a guy at the school who like to write it too.  Sure, there’s bound to be heartbreak, but no one is going to be shooting people with arrows and trying to stay alive so your district can eat a little better the next year.  My characters are basically happy.  How’s that for innovative?

I think, honestly, overall, there are some good ideas in my story, and I actually kind of love my main character and her relationship with her Mom—they have an amazing rapport, and I like writing them together.  (Maybe I’m Mary-Sue-ing the hell out of them… somehow I have no problem with that. ) Actually I like all my characters.  None of them has disappointed me, and I don’t expect them to. They’re just cool people I’d love to hang out with… that’s what fiction should do, right?  Make you fall in love with the characters and want to Netflix and chill with them?

As I think about it, maybe there’s some real potential in this book that it could become something awesome at some point (with massive revision, let’s not kid ourselves—it desperately needs the artist’s/ critic’s eye leveled against it, and all of its blemishes to be smoothed away with the writer’s equivalent of Clearasil).  But again, if it doesn’t go anywhere, that’s ok too.

The main point is, it’s fun.  And I feel like there hasn’t been a lot of fun in my writing this past year.  I’ve definitely had some whimsy, but not out-and-out fun.

It’s fun to break the rules.  I possess such a serious attitude towards writing in general—I’m so concerned with making art, and creating something that will resonate with Important Readers (like editors and other academic creative writers and journal-reading types), that, frankly, it’s kind of constipating, artistically-speaking.

This novel, in contrast, is the Dulcolax approach to writing.  Anything can happen.  Characters can do stupid shit and say the unexpected thing—and I can worry about making it work later. I’m going to go on those writing tangents—I can be a little more plot driven and not obsess about creating these finely-wrought (overwrought?) characters who gnash their teeth in their sensitivity.  Sometimes my characters have whole paragraphs of dialogue that doesn’t seem to go anywhere.  OMG, the dialogue doesn’t drive the story forward!  Oh, the horror!  You know what I say to that?  So what.

And my characters laugh and smile a lot.  And they gaze at each other intently.  Yeah, I know:   I really need to expand their action repertoire.  They need to do more than laugh and smile and gaze intently at each other. They need to “inhabit their space.” (I tell my students that all the time about characters in their stories and plays—make them physical beings, block their movements, blah blah blah.) I know I need to move their asses around more effectively and get them from place to place with a bit more style.

But not right now I don’t.  And why is that?  Because it’s my novel, and I can.

Even with the “minor” setback of the exploding Coke Zero that decimated the motherboard in my desktop computer yesterday and the possible permanent loss of 1200 words (and potentially everything else I’ve ever written—though I’m really trying hard to have faith that my data is safe and not freak out and imagine the worst, as is my nature to do), hasn’t really fazed me.  In fact, it’s not even a real loss… it’s like I’ve “temporarily misplaced” 1200 words—sure, they comprised a few really good scenes with some funny dialogue—but hell, if the scenes are gone for good,  there’s more where that came from. Because I feel like the Mount Vesuvius of language—there’s just so much inside of me oozing out everywhere—even if I actually really have lost those 1200 words, that ain’t no big thing.

To have this experience in my writing life is remarkable and wonderful and really weird for me.  It makes me wonder what I could accomplish in other areas of my life if I just gave in to the fun and didn’t care about being proper and appropriate and sensible and practical—maybe I would be as grandiose and giddy as I feel now.

We’ll see how I feel next week—maybe by then NaNoWriMo will get harder, maybe I won’t feel so Mount Vesuvi-esque with my language… But as of today, I have logged 6899 official words so far—which technically counts the 1200 I lost, if I’m remembering correctly, but since there’s still a chance my data is safe, I’m counting them.

And if they’re really gone, like I said, it’s ok, I’ll just write more to catch up.

Sharing Good News Doesn’t Make You a Braggart

I am a minimizer. That is to say: I don’t brag about myself or my accomplishments even when I should. In fact, sometimes I forget to tell people about them, or I mention good news in an offhand way, as if it’s of no consequence—and in this world where branding is a thing, you can’t be a minimizer.

I have writing friends who frankly tweet, post, Instagram, Snapchat, whatever, when they blow their fricken noses. That doesn’t appeal to me. I might make a quick tweet or a quick FB post, and it will get a few favorites or “likes,” and then it moves quickly out of the spotlight as I post more interesting things on my feeds, mainly pictures of my cats. And so, in choosing not to promote the hell out of myself—or even just the heck out of myself—I can’t really enjoy the accolades that I’m due because no one really takes notice.

Case in point. In my FB post about being named a finalist in the Hillary Gravendyk Poetry Prize, I should have been self-laudatory ad nauseam and really took time to savor that moment—I should have appreciated that it was a kind of milestone—that it meant that people outside of my little coterie of friends on FB and IRL recognized some worth in my manuscript. In my poetry—in the thing that is so central to my core self that it’s my identity. So what did I write on Sept. 19th about it? I quote:

“Just found out that my manuscript was a finalist in the Hillary Gravendyk Poetry Prize….but it didn’t win. Bummer.”

REALLY? That’s what I write? How about something like this?

“I just found out the great news that my poetry manuscript made it as far as finalist in the Hilary Gravendyk Poetry Prize!”

Look at the rhetorical differences between both of those posts—the lousy original and the one I should have written. Isn’t the second one a comment that deserves a lot of response? Of course it is—because it focuses on the positive, exciting aspect of even getting to the finalist stage. In my response, I minimized its significance right out of mattering to everyone… including myself.

How are people going to expect awesomeness from me if I don’t show off when something awesome happens? In my general (pathological?) desire to be wallflowery and invisible, this honor basically went unremarked. I mean, forgodsake, only one of my close writing friends even “liked” that post. It makes me wonder if the rest even know about it? And how would they know? I didn’t tell them. I should have let them take joy in my success—and it would have let me take some extra joy in it. But no.

Or what of the Pushcart Prize Nomination I received on Oct. 10th? This is an amazing recognition for me—yes, it’s a nomination, but just consider what it represents, that Glassworks thought mine was one of the best pieces they’d published all year. That is a Big Deal—or it should be. And here’s what I had to say about it on social media—talk about dinky—

“I would like to thank Glassworks Journal for nominating my piece ‘Camminare a Venezia: a Poemoir’ for a Pushcart Prize!”

This time not one of my close writing friends “liked” the post. Maybe they didn’t see it. Or maybe they don’t care about Pushcart Prizes; maybe they think writing prizes are bullshit, and nominations aren’t even noteworthy. But maybe they would have, if I had taken the time to tell them personally. (Or maybe not.)

This post is not to badmouth friends who weren’t more fulsome and forthcoming about praising me for my writing achievements. Whether something gets 9 “likes” or 90, that’s not how I should measure my worth. I know this.

This post is really designed more as a reminder to myself to be joyful in my writing successes, because they are fleeting and they don’t come often. By my not fully enjoying being a finalist in the manuscript contest or in learning about the Pushcart nomination (and preening or boasting even a little bit) I’ve robbed myself of some happy moments, and cheated my friends the opportunity to be happy for me too.  I need to do better about that.

P.S.: I took an unintentional hiatus from my Wednesday posts; October has been rife with disruption (bad and good), starting with the insanity that is semester scheduling for Spring; then my office flooded and I was office-homeless for more than a week; and my Mom came for a week, etc. So writing was a bit low-priority. I hope you, my Five Faithful, didn’t miss me too much.

Oh, Fiction, How You Torment & Tantalize Me…

I’ve been doing this little online fiction class—it’s only for three weeks, and it is just about over.  The group is small—seven writers and a leader/ moderator and his friend/ assistant.  I don’t know much about the person leading the workshop (I know he has an MFA and a TT job and he’s published a great deal). But all of the things he’s shared about writing and about the individual stories that the group have submitted seem pretty on target to me, and (once I finally understood the interface—it took me several days) I’ve been enjoying it… but more from a teacherly perspective, than a writerly one.

Were I a fiction writer by vocation, I would probably find the prompts and writing discussions more applicable to my own writing process—I want to try them out, of course, I just haven’t… yet.  I’ve said before that I’m interested in writing fiction—I just really can’t seem to do it.  But perhaps like anything, it just takes practice.  And, a few of his prompts could very well apply to creative nonfiction, and I know that I’ll definitely try his “life through artifacts” prompt.

Anyway, as I said, the class interests me from a teacherly perspective.  I like to see good teachers in action.  He draws from a lot of different backgrounds in fiction, and, since the theme of the class is about genre bending/ blending, and being experimental (two things I’m especially poor at), he has a vast knowledge of texts that he uses as examples to illustrate his suggestions about individual pieces and in his discussion about writing in general.  Since I’m not that educated about fiction (from a writing it kind of standpoint), his commentary is especially useful and interesting.

While he seems to have a particular affinity for SFF (as do the rest of the students in the workshop), he doesn’t look down his nose at other genres of fiction, and I admire that, because many academics in general dismiss genre fiction as being aliterary at best and no damn good at worst.  This tension seems to pervade the aesthetics of many writing programs; I’ve seen a few genre-writing MFA programs advertised in Poets & Writers, but that’s in no way typical.  (I never took a fiction writing class at Nebraska, but my sense of the fiction writers they had on faculty back then was that they were literary fiction writers exclusively.)

I suppose writing programs still want to turn out John Steinbecks and Margaret Atwoods (though she’s a bit of a fence sitter) rather than Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowlings and Kerry Greenwoods… The argument always comes back to high art vs. popular culture, particularly in the hallowed grounds of the Ivory Tower, doesn’t it?  (I also suspect, though I can’t be sure, that academics have a deep-seated fear of debasing themselves to write for money.  Like writing popular fiction is the dark side or something.  I have no such fear.  If I had the talent to do it, you better believe I’d be turning out romance novels or mysteries or Game of Thrones clones or horror stories, or hell, even porn.  I’m not proud.  I’m just not talented that way–I have no attention span to write anything longer than six pages, tops.)

As a reader and lover of genre fiction (although my interest tends to run toward mysteries… and Christmas romance novels, when it’s Christmastime), I’m glad the  workshop leader doesn’t have an arbitrary bias against genre fiction.  Anyway, all this is by way of saying, I ordered three books from Amazon on his suggestion—two were by Kelly Link, a writer I didn’t know about at all, but whom I’m liking. (I’m reading stories from her Magic for Beginners in between more chapters of Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher novels and in between stories from Aimee Bender’s The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (which was a suggestion from BFWF**).  It’s important to have good material to aspire too… or to be motivated by.

Imitation being the highest form of flattery, I try putting absurdity like Bender’s or Link’s into my stories, but generally it just comes out wrong. Or pretentious.  Or just like I’m trying too hard to be too cool and winding up being that doofus in the corner.  So then I try writing a conventional story, which I gravitate towards naturally anyhow.  (I know, I know, they tell you to write the thing you’re frightened off… but mainly I’m frightened of writing things that suck, so that advice doesn’t work too well for me.) I worked on a story the other day—it was based on an upcoming theme from Duotrope’s upcoming theme list—a Christmas-ish story, to be submitted by Sept. 25th.  (So, not a lot of time to dick around with it.)  I don’t know if I will finish it, though.  It’s lacking something… maybe, more words.  It’s supposed to be flash though—ideally, the journal wants 700 words.  I’ve written 1000, and it’s not finished.

A real experience prompted the story, and so as I’ve written it, it lies somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. (Liminal spaces suck, by the way.) The problem is, it doesn’t work as fiction OR nonfiction.  I like the idea of it—it focuses on an interaction with a neighbor I had one time when I made a snowman in the front yard.  I could make it totally creative nonfiction, but then it will be considerably longer—and it already lacks that CNF aesthetic—that real attention to beautiful language that CNF is known for, that expectation of a transformative moment that we rely on in creative nonfiction to drive the story forward.  And yet, it is there, a flash of a moment where the woman building the snowman relents, at least a little bit, in her annoyance at her neighbor’s intervention.  So the draft has that going for it.

Still, the journal wants fiction.  If I make it shorter, and more fiction-y, I don’t know that its point will be clear.  Honestly, I’m not sure anyone would care either way.  If I made it more fiction-oriented, I wonder what I could do to “fix” the story?  I can’t make it about a snowman that comes to life because I believe we ALL have heard that one before.  What I’m really interested in is the relationship between the two neighbors.  But I just don’t know if it’s compelling enough.  Maybe the story just needs to be a little anecdote I share with friends—maybe it’s really not meant to be shared in a large sense (with a public audience, I mean).

But maybe I’ve just persuaded myself that I could try harder and make this story work.  It doesn’t hurt to try and a hundred other motivational platitudes, blah, blah, blah.  I can see what happens if I try.  At the very least, it will be practice, and all writing practice is good, even the failures.  I know it will wind up longer, so I guess I’ll go the CNF route and forget about sending it to that particular journal.  That’s ok.

But I’ve digressed…  Back to the writing workshop:  I have a story to read and respond to for the online group.  I printed it out and left it on the table and now it has cat vomit on it.  But the first page seems pretty good, despite the stain, so I think I’ll go read the rest now.  And then maybe another Kelly Link story.

**Brilliant Fiction Writer Friend™