Sometimes, You Just Need New Eyes

It’s amazing how freeing not writing with your writing-group-as-your-audience-in-mind can be.

My writing group hasn’t been the most productively space lately for me–and for the rest of us, meetings intervene, people are too busy blah blah blah–and I think all of us are struggling with the Zodiac as a writing prompt.  I know it’s killing me–I just can’t think of anything good to say about the constellations or what they stand for.  Bless them, the other three in my group have rallied, and have done some interesting things with the various Signs, but so far, I really haven’t liked what I’ve produced.  (Well, to be fair, I liked my Pisces poem, but the others not so much.)  I’m not sure why I don’t find the Zodiac as inspirational or compelling as it could be–except that (and I’ve mentioned this in previous posts) that I feel like I need something connective to write about–in other words, I need a theme.  The Zodiac could be a good theme, but so far, I’m not moved.

Which brings me back to the first line of this post.  Because I’m not writing with my writing group as my audience, I’m writing some interesting stuff.  Not poems–I think I’m not in a poetic mood lately–but creative nonfiction.  Maybe I’m feeling a little confessional lately–and I feel like I can be that way in nonfiction because I know that the three other people in my writing group are only interested in poetry so they’re not going to be reading these nonfiction pieces.  Somehow I am shy about writing about personal (emotional) things in my poems because they are the first audience who sees what I write–and when I’ve brought them poems about relationships or “my inner self” (gag me, that sounds so pretentious) in the past, I’ve felt like they haven’t responded well.  I may be too invested in pleasing my writing group to be real with them.

But my nonfiction–which so far has an audience of one (me)–is about pleasing me.  I  just completed  a 20 page essay about a previous (and for the most part secret) relationship in my grad school past.  In the class that I’m teaching this semester, about women’s contemporary spiritual memoir, one of the assignments my students have to complete is a spiritual memoir of their own.  And in reading the books with students, wherein these women express their “real” selves, and explore their relationship with their Deities of choice as it impacts on their lives as women, I felt inspired to write a kind of spiritual memoir of my own–one that looks at a relationship about two people whose different religious backgrounds wind up driving them apart.

I know that I need some outside eyes to read it, and to offer me some direction, because I’m aware of some narrative flaws and have concerns about how I represent the religion of one of the characters in the memoir. But those outside eyes, whomever they may belong to, won’t be my writing group. My writing group knows me–or thinks it does–too well, and I need interested but personally uninvested critique.  I’m not sure where I will find a new audience–but there is someone I know, though not well, a writer, whom I’ve approached to give me some insight into how I might develop this essay more fully.  He is going out-of-town, but has agreed to meet with me when he gets back.  And in the interim, I’ll continue to work on it, and shape it.  I think it can be publishable at some future date, and I’m at a point in my life where maybe I’m ok with sharing more of my true self with others.  We’ll see.

I also just wrote another essay, though a shorter one, in which I discuss how my manuscript came to be (the one that I’ve sent to 21 publishers and have so far received 3 rejections for) in relation to a book I’ve just read, Theresa Senato Edwards’ Voices Through Skin, which among other things examines an extremely abusive marriage.  Of course you can never say that the author is definitively the speaker of the poems, but I feel there is certainly an element of autobiography in what Edwards is writing.  In writing my essay, I recognize something about where my manuscript comes from–I really don’t think I had put it together before now, though:  the relationship violence and rape that one of my characters experiences is really a reflection of the relationship violence and rape that I suffered in my own past.  And the way in which the character deals with her sister’s rapist is all about empowerment and justice–the same empowerment and justice that can only come from surviving something horrible.

I’ve never really discussed the abusive relationship I experienced.  I spent years in depression and self-loathing for it; I took cocktails upon cocktails of prescription drugs to dull the pain and more therapy than any three people put together.  Coupled with the depression one endures just from being in grad school, it’s a damn wonder I’m still alive.  I’ve told a few people that I was in this relationship, but always with minimal detail, and it’s not something that you can easily drop into conversation.  In fact, I lost a few friends because they couldn’t understand why I couldn’t just “get over” that relationship.  I’m sure they needed to protect themselves–but I’m also just as sure that they wanted to silence my pain.  Because if I, a reasonably intelligent and educated woman, could fall into a relationship like this, so could they.  And who wants to admit that they are just as vulnerable to being belittled and hit and raped, merely because they are women?

Anyhow in some way, although my book is nothing about me, JC, I think it probably evolved as an imaginative response to the very real horrors of my life.  I’ve written this book years later after that abusive relationship, of course, but you can never escape your past.  Writing this essay where I look at relationship violence and Edwards’ book and my own is really kind of freeing.  At some point in my life, I might write some creative nonfiction about that abusive relationship exclusively.  Or I might not.  Ten-ish years ago is a long time, and sometimes ghosts need to remain ghosts.  But we’ll see.  It helps that if I choose to write about that relationship in detail I don’t have to rely on my writing group for critique or affirmation.  They are just not interested in that kind of writing.

And there are others–out there, somewhere–who are.  And I will find them, and maybe find a new writing group to help me explore the creative non-fiction me as it emerges.

I Also Need a Theme

Since I finished my manuscript, I’ve been literarily adrift about what to write. It would help if I had a theme–I just can’t think of one good enough to sustain my interest.

My writing group’s current theme is the Zodiac, and I can’t tell you how uniteresting the Zodiac becomes when one has to sit down and write a poem based on what sign we’re currently in.  Part of that has to be because in general, I don’t give much thought to the Zodiac.  Maybe the Chinese Zodiac would have been a better topic–at least that’s full of animals, and writing about animals can be a good prompt.  Sure, sure, the general Zodiac has a few animals–Pisces, Aries, Taurus, Leo, maybe a few more I’m not thinking about, but those are much later in the year–well, not Pisces, that’s what we’re in right now.  But what do I have to say about a fish?  I’m not Marianne Moore.

A book of writing prompts could be useful, but I am not often happy with what I produce when I use them.  Not to mention, writing prompts generate many disparate kinds of poems without a central theme… and it’s the theme I am looking for.  After all, I have to find the next focus so I can start on the next book.  I would really prefer it doesn’t take me another four years to write one (like it took me to write this one).

Still, if any of you out there reading this have any suggestions of good writing prompt-y kinds of books, could you leave me a comment?

Keeping Track

I haven’t been a publishing machine in the months since last I wrote.  That said, I have been writing and sending my work out with the rigor that I should have been applying myself yea these many years.

To wit:

  • Submitted my book manuscript to 18 contests (so far, 3 rejections)
  • Submitted poetry to 14 journals (so far, 7 rejections)
  • Submitted an application to a fellowship
  • Submitted a play to a journal
  • Submitted creative nonfiction to 3 journals (one journal took a story 2 days after I submitted it!)
  • Submitted flash/ fiction to 5 journals

Every time I open up Submittable and I see all my active submissions, I feel a little self-impressed.  Which is not the worst thing.  I need all the encouragement I can get, because the last few rejections have really bummed me out.  (Especially the one I got on Friday which just infuriated me… unfortunately I can’t go into it because there’s no way to be anonymous regarding the journal and say what I REALLY want to say about them.)

What I really need to do is to get some quiet time and try writing something unusual, something hybridy, maybe.  What that would be, I couldn’t say.  Maybe tomorrow…

Anyway, I’m reveling in my dedication.  And I didn’t post this so that I could be all “look at me, look at me,” but just to remind myself that I can make writing a priority, and that it’s good for me.  And, to have a record of it, for when I’m feeling kind of down about my writing successes, or I reach a dry spell.

I hope all of you are having good luck in your writing too.

Why Having Your Mom Read Your Work Is a Bad Idea

So last night, my Mom tells me that she finished reading my manuscript. Here I’m thinking that she’s about to launch into a litany of Mom-like praise.  No.  This is how the conversation went (and apologies for any spoilers… please don’t let that stop you from buying my book when it eventually comes out):

Mom:  I couldn’t believe that ending.  I kept reading and saying Oh, my God!  Oh, my God!

JC:  What do you mean?

Mom:  I had no idea!  I didn’t see it coming! Oh, my God!

JC:  What do you mean, you didn’t see it coming?  She talks about revenge!  She’s plotting!

Mom:  But killing him, for breaking her sister’s heart?

JC:  No, Mom, she kills him because he raped her sister!  That’s why she’s getting revenge!  And he killed her other sister!  He ran her over in his car!

Mom:  He did?  He raped her sister?  I didn’t see that.  And he killed the other sister?  I mean I knew she died…

JC:  Did you read this book?  The rape is not explicit–it happens “off stage,” but he admits it to his friend…

Mom:  I guess I’m just too pedestrian. [Whatever the hell that means.]  Guess I’ll have to read it again and look for the clues.

JC [trying to sound gentle]:  I’m sorry it upset you. [Look for the clues???  How could you miss them?]

Mom:  Of course I’m upset!  She cut him open!  She chopped him up!  I had no idea!  You should have given me a synopsis before I read this book.  It was too graphic!

JC [a little petulantly]:  But you knew she was going to get revenge…

Mom:  Yes, but I thought it was going to be a spell.

JC:  Well, it was a spell.   She poisons him after she does a spell.  And anyway, he was dead before she chopped him up.

Mom:  I just don’t read things like this… I mean you know these things happen, but I don’t read about them!…Before I share it with [a mutual friend] I’m going to have to warn her. She won’t expect it–it will upset her.

JC:  [Good grief.]  Ok, Mom.

I am somewhat bemused by this conversation–it’s kind of funny, but it’s also a little hard to take.  I mean, if you pay attention at all, there are plenty of signs that the main character is just biding her time (à la Hamlet) until she’s ready to exact revenge on the bad guy.  Ok, so maybe the dismemberment was a little over the top, but at the same time, I tried to write it bloodless–that is to say, very matter-of-fact, very much like reporting what was happening (as opposed to poetic editorializing) to demonstrate how clear-headed she was in carrying out her revenge.  Like I could have been gruesomely graphic, but I tried to be restrained. (As an aside, let me say, one of my writing group members thought I should rewrite this section to make it more trance-like, as if she were doing this murder in a dreamlike state.  But that would never have worked, a) because I don’t write in fragments, and b) that is not how this character acts.  She’s completely within her faculties–which I think makes the scene more chilling, because she’s perfectly clear-headed in the process.  She’s not some kind of psycho-killer.  But I digress.)

The point is, of course, that audience matters.  Clearly, some Moms aren’t the audience for books that examine instances of violence.  My Mom despises violence–she runs out of the room, for example, when something scary or possibly bloody is about to happen on the TV.  And while I think that’s an extreme reaction, I suppose, knowing this about her, I should have expected a reaction like this one.  I should have expected it, but I didn’t–so I didn’t think to “warn” her about the murder–although, I also think if she had been reading more carefully, she would have realized what was going to happen.  For heaven’s sakes, that particular part is called “Blood Will Have Blood.”  Like duh, what did you think was going to happen in something that quotes from Macbeth??

Mom was also upset, I think, because there are no repercussions (at least, in this book–and no, that’s an oblique comment promising a sequel, by the way) for the murder.  The character does, in fact, “get away with it.”  And I’m ok with that.  I think my Mom’s sense of justice doesn’t like that she escapes her actions with no downfall, or at least, no real commentary about it.

But I’m not interested in the main character’s punishment–I don’t think she’s unjustified in her actions–and human “justice” is not what this book is about, anyway.  It’s about supernatural justice–not divine justice, make no mistake–she does invoke the Sign of the Goat/ the Dark Mother, after all.  And also, this is not a Greek tragedy.  Apologies to Aristotle, but it’s not hamartia for her to kill him who needs killing.  And anyway, if you kill without your soul, you can kill in “good conscience,” because in fact, no soul equals no conscience to be damaged.

Poor Mom.  She said, “I never knew I’d have a daughter who could write like something like that.”  Oh, if you only knew.

Worrying, Whining, and Waiting, Oh My

I haven’t really said this to anyone, but since I finished my book, I’ve been feeling really edgy–and worried. Edginess is not surprising; after all, after you’ve put as much time into the book as I have, with characters that you know inside and out, now that their story is done, you don’t know what to do with yourself. How do you say goodbye, except to say it? But now, what are you supposed do you do with your time?

The worry, of course, is probably typical of anyone who’s ever finished writing a book. I’m listing all my current worries:

  1. Why won’t the people I’ve given the book to read, read it? (How dare they be busy with their own lives?)
  2. What if they’ve read it and hate it?
  3. What if they didn’t mind it, but that’s the best they could say for it?
  4. What if no one publishes it?
  5. What if someone publishes it?
  6. What if it gets published, and no one cares?
  7. What if gets published, and people say they like it, but because I always mistrust people, I don’t believe them, and I stay a curmudgeonly old crank convinced everyone secretly hates me and my writing?
  8. What if I can’t write anything else?
  9. What if I can’t write anything else?

That last worry is probably so familiar, everyone feels it.  I listed it twice because the fear is smothering me–that if I’m lucky enough to be successful, I’ll be a one hit wonder, like Harper Lee.  (Of course, if your book is To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s probably just fine to coast the rest of your life and literary career… I should be that lucky.)

I’ve just been feeling like I have no words right now.  I don’t know what to write.  I feel like there are no poems inside me.  I feel like there never will be again.  I feel like I’m in mourning.  Or maybe I’m having the writer’s equivalent of postpartum depression.

This is coming off as overly dramatic and needy, isn’t it?  You’re probably telling me to STFU.  Believe me, I tell myself the same.  You’re probably also thinking, Why don’t you wait and see what happens, and quit being such a whiny little bitch?  If no one reads/ likes/ publishes your book, so what?  You’ll live.  There’s people dying of Ebola virus, did you think of that?

(Great, Ebola.  Now I’m worrying about that too.)

The truth is, my writing group has read my book, and they like it.  I should accept that they like it.  Chris has read it and likes it.  My Mom has read a good bit of it and she likes it.  But a part of me thinks, well, they only like the book because they like me.  So they “don’t count.”  (Isn’t that some kind of ridiculous thinking?  They’re the ones who should matter the most!)

Ugh.  I’m just a big tangle of insecurities and vanity and… STFU JC Reilly.  And go to bed, while you’re at it.

Feeling Productive (For the Moment)

I read this post on Facebook about annoying status messages, and the gist of it was, “Don’t post things that make you look like a smug bastard.”  And it’s a valid message for blog posts as well.  So, I’m hoping that I don’t come across as smug when I say that I have been a submission queen lately–in the last 2 weeks, I’ve sent 2 different chapbooks out to contests and poems to 14 journals.  I am not admitting this for praise (because, after all, no one reads this blog), but just to show (myself) that I’m trying to take my writing more seriously.  Which I’ve been needing to do.  (As we know, if you write something down, it becomes more real.)

Submissions are hard for everyone.  But they seem especially hard for me, as I don’t have a good sense of how to put poems together in batches that make sense to me, let alone editors.  Often it seems that my poems are really just very different from each other, so trying to group them is like a nightmare.  So, I wind up not sending poems out–not the best idea, if I actually want to be a writer that people actually read.

But I’ve been trying (as I mentioned)–and while I don’t know when I’ll be successful with any of these 16 submissions (and already I know 2 weren’t, as I received rejections today), I feel like if I can just keep trying–maybe just sending one or two submissions out every day–maybe I can start getting my name out there and seeing that name in print.

Between 5 Degrees N & S Latitude

With registration going on, my creative impulses have gone right out the window.  You might think the reverse would be true:  that the tedium and minutia of my job that currently preoccupies my lower-functioning mind would allow the higher-functioning part to be working overtime on things creative.  But alas, that is not the case.  I’ve hit the doldrums–though hopefully it won’t go past April 23rd (when registration suspends).

Part of the problem, of course, is the DYPS hasn’t met for several weeks–first it was Spring Break; and then it was the week after Spring Break, but no one but Bob could come; and then this week was AWP.  So three Thursdays have passed and I haven’t been “required” to produce, which is bad–I need that discipline or I’m a slug.  To be fair, I’ve been kicking around a Sibley Sister poem, but I just don’t know about the ending–and I’m not talking about “Best Served Cold,” the poem that’s been futzed with and “tweaked” to death, and still no one likes the end. (Because it’s crappy.)

Everyone knows ending poems (with, if not a transcendent “ah” experience, at least a resolute “yes”) is hard, but they seem especially hard with the Sibley poems.  I’ve mentioned before how I want these poems to do alot, but it’s hard to get it on one page.

But at this point, it’s hard to get anything on a page.  I’m in a rut–and it’s not just the poems (but I don’t want to go into it.)  Maybe it’s just time to do some more reading–I’ve got a ton I could read, that might inspire me.  Maybe I should take a break and write something else.  Or maybe I just need to “put on my Big Girl panties and deal with it”–“write through the pain”– “embrace the struggle”… or whatever other hackney phrase people say when they have to deal with annoying, whiny-ass, self-pitying, self-indulgent, poor-me-I-have-writer’s-block-my-life-is-so-tragic brats like me.

*Sob.*

Happy New Writing Year!

Says Chris:  “Now that the holidays are over, it’s time to start writing again.”

I’m paraphrasing, but he’s not wrong.  Frankly, I had great plans of writing over the break–especially the furlough days, courtesy of the State of Georgia.  But there always seems to be more to do at the holidays than you think there is–putting parties together, shopping for Christmas dinner, cooking, wrapping gifts, getting ready for family visits, driving everywhere…  And then it’s over, and you haven’t much to show for it, other than an overly-boring list of announcements about leveling up in one game or another on Facebook.

I’m sad that Christmas is over–and not just because having the days off was nice.  I don’t need to pontificate about how the reality never measures up to the hype, though I had a good Christmas day with Chris, and later my Mom, who showed up around 7:30 p.m. (and my wild mushroom lasagne for Christmas dinner was amazing).  But you go into the stores now, and see things on 75% clearance, and everything looks so sad and broken, and you wonder how it can be gone so quickly, and forgotten.

Anyway, it’s 2010 now, and since I accomplished my goal of getting a chapbook accepted for publication last year (although it won’t be out until this July–and believe me, I will be reminding all of you when Finishing Line is doing the pre-sale), my new resolution is to write a full-length collection that will be ready for the contest route in 2011.

I just need a theme (what I call the “gimmick”) that can help guide me in writing and shaping the collection–I mean, for La Petite Mort, the gimmick was the voice–it ruled the poems, both in subject matter and in tone.  I need something like that to help me begin writing the new collection; otherwise, I will continue to write a lot of random, unrelated poems that could never be a book.  (I just wish I’d be hit soon with some divine inspiration about what that theme/ gimmick could be.  *Sigh.*)

And I suppose the best thing about heading back to work is that our writing group will gear back up.  I really, really need that discipline.

Anyway, Happy New Year, everyone.  I hope it’s filled with poems, publications, and pleasant good times.