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™

My Philosophy on Writing, As Explained on My Creative Writing Class Syllabus

On my creative writing syllabus this term, I’ve included the following …well… essay explaining my philosophy on writing.  I thought it would be useful to my students to see what I think about the writing process going in.

Of course, everyone knows, the longer your syllabus is, the less students read it.  So I’m sharing this with you, my beloved five readers, because maybe you will appreciate it.  🙂

(P.S… I will make a Wednesday Post tomorrow… I just wanted to share this since I think it’s pretty good.)

*****

This class is as much about process as product—more so, actually.  What we end up with is important—but how we get there is more important.  It is extremely rare that the first draft we write is the final polished version—the person who can do that either is a literary genius or has made a deal with a devil.  If you’re a literary genius:  go home, you have no need for this class.  If you’ve made a deal with the devil:  congratulations on your masterpiece and future literary career, but too bad about your soul.

For the rest of us, we have to see a piece mature from a little clot of words and ideas to something that has possibilities to something that vaguely resembles a story or a play to something that becomes like a story or play to a revision and another revision to a detour to a revision of the detour to a rumination to a final polished version of a story or play.  Because experimentation is a key (and expected) part of the writing process, it’s not a linear process… it’s all ways at once, not a single path from start to finish.  (This may be scary to some  students, for whom linearity is a way of life.)  Creative writing is about approaching an idea from a lot of different ways, and sometimes that means we scrap what we started with.  Or we only save a line or two.  Or we change characters.  Or we change who’s telling the story.  Or we smash things together (or break them apart).  But the point is, you can’t be married to the first (or even second or third) version, because for most people, the first few versions are not fleshed out in terms of their vision and their form.

Drafting/ experimenting is NOT editing.  If you look at your first draft and “fix” a few comma errors or spelling mistakes, but generally keep the majority of the draft the same in terms of language and structure, that’s a cosmetic change (in other words, editing).  Drafting/ experimenting is an act of resistance… resisting the easy route, resisting the belief that the first try will be golden, resisting the status quo.  It’s about risk and about transformation.  It’s about making something new every time until the most perfect form reveals itself.  It’s about negative space.  About what’s not there—and about what could be there when we stumble on it.  But you won’t find out what could be there until you resist the urge to stick with your first attempt.  So, resist!  Resist mediocrity!  Resist the humdrum!  Because if you’re the kind of person who’s (even mildly) ambitious and curious and ready to aspire to something unique in writing, you’ll do just fine in this class.

Know this:  I’d rather see a flawed final draft that’s undergone some pretty substantial drafting/ experimenting as it emerged into its final polished form than a piece that hasn’t changed much at all because it was too satisfied with its original version or too fearful/ protective to let it become something more (in other words, a chrysalis that never becomes a butterfly).

I will help you realize the polished form and vision of your work through extensive comments on drafts and suggestions for revision.  I might not have the answer on how to “fix” your story or play, but I have a lot of experience in creative writing—it’s my field—so you can be sure that we’ll work together to make dynamic writing happen. Your classmates will also have ideas about your work.  This is a collaborative class—we learn from each other, and that’s as it’s meant to be.

A final word about this:  just because we experiment with our writing doesn’t mean that there aren’t “rules” that won’t need to be observed—we’ll talk about them in class, we’ll read about them in our text.  This is not an Outback restaurant.  It’s not “no rules, just right” (or “no rules, just write” as the case may be).  I do not believe in the idea of “anything goes because it’s creative!”  No.  There are real, aesthetic rules and conventions (practices or principles, if you prefer) that have emerged over the course of literary history that continue to be observed by contemporary writers for a reason—because they generally work.

When emerging writers understand these rules in writing and follow them, they acknowledge their forebears’ contributions to craft, and demonstrate that they, too, can be adept at using the conventions that have helped define (Western) literary and cultural tradition.  And then, through maturity, and only then, with deep, considered appreciation of aesthetics, may they consciously and judiciously break the rules and explore new territory.  Think of this in terms of an analogy:  Picasso, before he was a Cubist and could create something like Guernica, drew and painted realistic figures and scenes such as Portrait of the Artist’s Mother.  As he gained in experience and artistic power, Picasso threw over realism-as-convention and became a pioneer.

In works the same in writing:  demonstrate first that you can follow convention, that you can do it the “right” way (at least in terms of form and style), before you earn the right to defy it.  It’s absolutely important to create something new… but not at the expense of alienating your audience or making something that is incomprehensible and labeling it “art” just because you can.

A note about form, while we’re at it:  think of form as a lens.  The beauty of form is that it should be invisible; if we wear contacts or glasses, we don’t see the lens, because the lens itself is clear, and therefore we can see everything in front of us clearly, without blur.  The form of a piece of writing works the same way:  it should make the words and their meaning clear—it should not obscure words and meaning.  If you hand in a play that’s not in correct play script format, can you even call it a play?  No, and you’ll alienate your audience because they will be expecting to read a play, and instead will struggle to see your characters and understand their actions through the wrong lens.  Form and convention are important, and you should be mindful of them.

Of course, let me also include a quote from the famous fiction writer Flannery O’ Connor about just this subject:  “It’s always wrong of course to say that you can’t do this or you can’t do that in [creative writing].  You can do anything you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much.”

For a Writer Friend Who Isn’t Writing (This Is Still About Me Though, Let’s Be Clear)

A lot of my thinking has to do about why I write, and this blog looks at my writing process and elaborates on that thinking (as my five faithful readers are well aware). Everyone knows that writers write. And everyone also knows that sometimes writers don’t write—because they’re bored or they’re tired or they’ve just reached some kind of impasse.

I was going through a lot of crap in my office, preparing for the AC guys to come in and work on my AC unit (by the way, they still haven’t come, and my office is a disaster, though that’s beside the point), and in the process I was throwing out a lot of paper and other useless bits of detritus from my years teaching, and I came across a freewrite I scrawled on July 16, 2008. The topic was “Why Do I Write” and this is what I said:

I write sometimes it seems not because I love it like I used to, when writing was about loving words and not about worrying about a CV. I haven’t written like this [in other words, a freewrite—I was taking a continuing ed class at Emory on memoir writing] in a long time—I buy writing books but lack the discipline to doing it on my own. Actually, I lack the discipline in so many ways—

I was thinking earlier today that I should work on those poems for June and July [this was during the period our writing group, the DYPS, was working on the poems that would eventually become On Occasion: Four Poets, One Year]—it seems more fun to write when I have my friends to write for. But Karen and Bob are out of town, and again, their being gone is like a license for me not to write. And I need to write—after all, I want to be famous some day—that’s a really terrible reason, I know [well, come on, it’s a freewrite after all—you can say anything you want in a freewrite, even something ridiculous like that]—but I want to have something to pass on, something that matters. I probably will never have children, so my legacy needs to be another kind of creation. That’s why I write. Or, that’s why I want to write.

(Blah blah.  Oh, JC from 2008, you are so tedious.  But, on the other hand, if you need a reason to write, and the hope for fame is it, well, keep on hoping, and keep on writing.  Whatever works, right?)

The fact is, I do write. Well, now I do.  Maybe not with the frequency I should, but I’m at an ok point with my writing and my diligence and my publishing. What got me thinking about not writing was a recent email I got from my Brilliant Fiction Writer Friend™, the one who gave such amazing and useful advice on the two pieces of prose I brought him. I asked him whether he was still writing stories frequently, and he replied that since he defended his dissertation, he hadn’t written anything, that he was burnt out. (I can totally understand this—he also has a very time-consuming, draining job helping students work on their writing and communication.  When you’re giving so much of your energy to helping others write, well, maybe you don’t have a lot left for yourself…which is why I feel greedy and guilty and burdensome and needy asking his advice…but whatever, that’s my pathology.) What he said resonates in a big way with me:

I’ve tried a couple of times in the past three years, but I forced it and nothing came of it. I’m waiting for inspiration to strike.

Damn that inspiration—it’s so flighty and capricious. Of course we want to write something that is meaningful, “something that matters,” as I said in 2008—and inspiration does give us that energy and excitement that we need, especially when we’re in a writing rut.  After all, if we’re not writing something that matters, what’s the point? We’re just making the written equivalent of noise. (Wouldn’t it be great to feel inspired all the time? If I could figure out how to do that, I’d bottle inspiration and make my fortune.  Ah, pipe dreams.)

I can’t make BFWF™ want to write, but I wish he would, because he’s wonderful and I know that his stories (even if they’re hiding in his subconscious right now) will be wonderful too, once he digs them out.

At the same time, as writers know, if you don’t feel it, you don’t feel it, and forcing yourself to write when you don’t feel like it is pretty much a one-way ticket to hell because you’re a) setting yourself up for failure, and b) tossing yourself deeper into the “I hate to write” abyss, which makes you less inclined to pick up a pen (or keyboard) later on, and c) basically pissing yourself (and probably anyone around you) off.

I know this from personal experience. When you’re at a dry spell in your writing life—if you’re a writer—it’s probably because lots of other things in your life are in a dry spell too. In those “I hate writing” times of my life—when the writing ennui is really incapacitating and insurmountable—it’s generally because my life is out-of-whack. (Everyday life and living can be such a bitch sometimes.)

I’m a weird point. In some ways, I have a completely out-of-whack life right now—I’m feeling extremely morose and demoralized about a number of things (I won’t bore you with details) but I guess I feel like I can retreat into my writing—and if I’m not writing, well, at least I’m sending things out so they’re being seen in the world.

Anyway, I’m glad and grateful that I’m not not writing—sometimes, writing is the only thing in my life that makes sense. I hope that continues to be the case. And I hope inspiration strikes soon for BFWF™, I really do.  The world needs his words.

Headus Injurius, Or, Why Can’t I Write Fiction Too?

I was having one of my “tired days” yesterday, and when I came home from work, I went directly to bed. I did get up later, but never with the kind of focus I needed to be able to write a blog post (well, not one that would have been coherent, anyway), so here is my Wednesday post on Thursday.

I’ve mentioned my interest in nonfiction before, but I’ve also become interested in writing fiction too. It doesn’t come easily, writing fiction, so I am a great admirer of those who can write it “easily.” I put “easily” in quotes because I know that writing well doesn’t come easily to anyone—an author has to work at it. But of course some people have a knack for writing fiction, and some, like me, have some really great ideas that, because they have the attention span and stamina of a gnat, rarely get explored in a long form like fiction. Oh sure, there’s always flash, and I do have some ability to write flash because it’s short, and it has a kind of poetic aesthetic which I can get behind. But I want to write “real” short stories.

I have a number of partially completed stories that I’ve written in the last few weeks. The problem is, I can’t get past the “partially.” This is my fiction writing process:

  1. I have a great idea.
  2. I begin to write the great idea.
  3. I write myself into a hole (or into boredom).
  4. I wish, fervently, for a tornado, or earthquake, or angel or other Act of God to happen to get my characters out of the hole I’ve dug.
  5. I know deus ex machinas are cheesy and horrible, and reject any Act of God that occurs to me as being the last desperate attempt of a failed fiction writer.
  6. I give up on the story.

You see? It’s hopeless. And what I really don’t understand is that conventional wisdom says, “Read voraciously in the genre you want to write and you will be able to write it.” I do this! I read mysteries, literary fiction, romance fiction, YA, monster/ fantasy stories. I read a lot of fiction (as well as nonfiction and poetry, of course—and drama). I don’t understand how come I can’t translate all this great modeling being done by the fiction authors I read into fiction of my own.

Conventional wisdom also says “Go with your strengths.” But maybe whoever came up with that bit of conventional wisdom was some bozo who wants us to stay with what we know so we won’t encroach on their areas of expertise! It’s possible.

Or it’s possible that the idea of going with our strengths (writing what we know?) is to keep us from banging our heads against the wall. Believe me, I’ve felt like doing some head-banging lately—and not of the metal concert variety. I have written these partial stories, and I just know that if I could finish them, they’d be cool. But where do I get that impetus to finish? Or perhaps a better question is, “Is there anything beyond the initial cool idea rattling around in my brain?” (Sometimes, I doubt it.)

Certainly it’s a matter of training—my creative writing background consists entirely of poetry and poetry classes. (I wonder if there’s a Remedial Story Writing 101 class I could take?) But I want to write beyond that—and to write in a sustained way. I just don’t know how to do it, and it’s so frustrating to come up against limitations that I don’t even know why I have them. How hard can it be to write a story? Why does it have to feel excruciating? Why does my brain have to come up with these ideas that I clearly can’t develop beyond a few pages? It seems so unfair. And pointless.

And so I suppose I’m going to continue banging my head against the wall, writing these partial stories until SOME DAY I get the message from outer space or wherever that lets me actually finish one. Or maybe I’m just destined to be a failed fiction writer. But somehow, I can’t accept that.

Well, not yet, anyway.

(Fiction writers:  how do you do it????)

Now Trending in the Poetry World, the Poetry Project Book (Is It #PoetryProjectBook Yet?)

Coming up with an idea for a Wednesday Post has eluded me today.  I don’t feel well (a lurking migraine I think), and so consequently, my brain is a little foggy.  What gems can I impart on writing when I mostly just want to be in bed with the covers pulled over my head?  Maybe I need to forget gems and just be happy with bits of flint and granite.

Anyway, I read an article on the AWP website, Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s “The Poetry Project Book:  a Marriage of Heart and Mind” which discusses a trend she’s noticed in poetry books lately to be “obsessed” with an idea to the point that all of the poems within the book focus on a single guiding image or kind of form.  She argues that poets are writing these books because it offers the beauty of constraint while allowing a kind of “arc” to appear in a book of poetry that doesn’t normally appear in books where poems are about all manner of subjects—where the poems are true “collections” that demonstrate a breadth of a poet’s writing across time.

This trend appears more frequent in MFA theses, she notes, which are then (not surprisingly) flooding the contest market.  I think this approach to writing poetry changes the expectations of a poetry book. We want a book to be “about” something–not just be a collection of poems.  Of course, there are plenty of books that are more traditional in their collection-ness—these aren’t going anywhere—but I’ve even noticed just in reading some journal guidelines lately that ask for poems on related subjects.

So it’s no wonder, if journals are looking for related poems, that writers are writing entire books focused on a single issue.  I’m trying to think of books I’ve read lately—one was entirely focused on Persephone, one was focused on birds, another was illness and cancer—if you write 50+ poems on the same topic, it does make it easier to understand a book, to see where the author is going with her words.  Just this morning, Benjamin Dodds sent me a packet of poems to read from the verse novel he’s working on (I won’t give the topic away, don’t worry, Benjamin), and when the poems are all related it does lend a kind of urgency to them that might be missing when they’re all focused on different subject matter. The connection makes them more compelling—and I think that’s what Hoffman was arguing.

She also mentions that these poetry project books can fail spectacularly.  Can you just imagine if you read a collection and each poem centered on something tedious… like a motorcycle?  Sure, there’s cohesion, but who gives a fuck?

So I guess in that “marriage of heart and mind” that Hoffman discusses, an author has to balance her obsession with a topic that can reach a wider audience. I have to admit, when Hoffman referenced Nicky Beer’s The Octopus Game, which came out earlier this year from Carnegie Mellon, a book of poems that’s all about octopi, I thought, Oh, yeah, I would totally read that.  Who doesn’t like octopi? I like octopi.  I think they’re kind of cool.  I think a book full of octopus poems could totally work—Hoffman thinks Beer has plenty of relevant and urgent things to say in those poems.  I might actually buy that book from Amazon–in fact I’ve put it in my cart…  Whereas, if someone came out with a poetry project on motorcycles, I’d probably fall asleep before I could turn the first page.

This poetry project topic interests me in general because as I’ve said on a few occasions, I need a “hook” for my writing—something to get excited about.  Something to really go into detail with a kind of obsessive delight.  That focusing element that would at least help me get past that moment of inertia where I’m all, “I don’t know what to write about.  I have nothing to say.  Let me go look at cat pictures on tumblr.”

I feel as if I had a “obsession” like that, it might actually make writing easier.  It gives you something to rally around.  When I got back from Venice last year, I wrote seven poems about it.  I wish I could back to Venice because if ever a place was an inspiration, Venice is it.  I know I could write 50+ poems about Venice—but I need longer than a week to be there.  A month might do it.  Maybe two.  But that’s not happening any time soon.

So all of this is by way of saying that I like the poetry project approach to writing books.  It makes sense to me.  I’ve been thinking that it’s time I put together another chapbook.  But then I look at all my poems (particularly the published ones) and I don’t see any cohesive thread—I don’t see how they create an arc, how they work together.  And that is deadly when it comes to creating a collection—deadly because it’s hard to do, and deadly because potential publishers don’t know what to do with them lately, or so it seems.

Anyway, I know I’m a little all over the place today.  I’m sorry about that.  Go read Hoffman’s article–it’s interesting.  And if any of my five readers have a suggestion of topics for me to get excited about and write 50+ poems, please let me know.  That would be extremely cool of you.

Sea Change

This weekend, I visited Tybee Island (off the coast of Savannah) for the first time, with my sister Kirsten and my poetically-named nephew, Whitman (whom I’ve written about before).  It was a late birthday gift to me, though I didn’t realize it at the time (until Kir told me so, as we were jumping some rather paltry waves at low tide).  I thought she had just gotten a wild hare to go to the beach and wanted me to tag along—because, despite my obnoxiously pale skin that practically burns even in the rain (I generally shun the sun like a vampire), I love the beach.  I love, love, love everything about the beach—sand, salt, water, bodies doing all kinds of things, umbrellas, fish, shell fragments, kelp, the smell of creosote pylons and sunscreen—and she knows that, that wonderful sister of mine.  Which is why this weekend really was the best birthday gift ever.

If I could live in the ocean, I could be quite content.  It would making writing poems a bit difficult of course (the soggy pages!), but the truth is, I think I was meant to be in the water.  Though I’m a Taurus, a fixed earth sign, and I’ve never had my astrological chart “done” (I mean, come on), I’m certain water signs must appear all over the different houses because I just adore the water so.  A lot of people will tell you that they feel “free” or “at peace” in the water—and of course, I feel those things too.  But it’s more than that.

To me, the ocean lets me lose time and fill in all the cracks and damage that every-day living levels at me.  Hours can pass in the water and you don’t even notice the changing position of the sun, or the fact the tide pulls so far out that you’re only in waist-high water, even though you’re far out past the end of pier near the Tybee Island Marine Science Center.  You just suddenly realize it’s 4 p.m., and you have no idea how that happened.  It’s more than “time flies when you’re having fun.”  The water has its own clock and rhythms, and it lets you forget anything as mundane as minutes and hours.

The ocean helps me feel whole again.  The water seeps in my pores (and less fortunately, sometimes my mouth and nose), and somehow heals me. When there are metallic shiny fish breaching for the joy of it or dozens of pinky-length tiny fish swimming in schools, and seagulls swooping down to catch these foot-long clear snaky fish all around you, and all you can hear is people laughing and splashing, how can anyone not feel rejuvenated?

Everything is light—I am light—and can be pushed around by waves as if I am nothing.  Blah blah power of nature blah blah—sure. But on land I don’t feel grounded like I should—or maybe, to look at it a different way, I am too grounded on land.  There is ease in the water—it’s my element—and I like the sway and swell of the water, the way moments there can’t be quantified.  Too much of life on land is about measuring and metrics and stasis.  Water erases all of that—and it’s a heady feeling, just to be.

Alas, despite my affinity for it, living in the ocean is not possible—and with real estate prices being what they are, living by the beach is also not possible.  So, what to do?

What I would like to do is spend a week down at the coast (or longer if I could afford it) and take my notebook out to the beach and write.  When you only have a few precious hours at the water, you have to spend every one of them playing in the waves with family and visiting with them (which is as it should be).  Writing must give way to experiencing.

If I had a longer stretch of time available to me, I could spend some of it “processing” the experience:  noticing the way the sand dries in ripples when the tide rolls out, watching the swoop of pelicans as they fly only inches above the water’s surface, counting the colors that appear as the waves crash, wondering about the origins of a knot of ropes and seaweed and a plastic spoon.  Figuring out what it all means—and how I as a person and writer fit in such an environment.  That’s the work of a writer, after all, to interpret experience and reveal meaning.

But you need time and a “fullness of attention” to consider all those sensory details that come together to create that writerly moment, I think—otherwise, your writing faces generic tropes and recycled metaphors (and nobody wants that–especially not about the beach).  A day and a half at the water will never be enough to see and taste and hear everything—oh, alright, perhaps it’s enough to squeeze out a poem or two, if I really try.  Honestly, I would like to write a suite of beach poems—the beach at different times of day, in different weather, in different moods—something to help me remember what “beach” and “waves” mean for those times when I’m stuck in my pedestrian, dry life.

(I guess I need to investigate how many week-long writers’ conferences are situated by the sea…I know Stonecoast is one… maybe I can work that in next summer. Hmm.)

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.

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.