Undiscouraged

Now that I’m more diligent about sending pieces out, I’m getting volumes of rejections–several a week in fact. Most don’t say much, but a few say things like, “We enjoyed reading and discussing your work; in fact, it made it to the final tier of the editorial process. Although we are going to have to pass this time around, please don’t let that discourage you.”

Relative to the typical rejection letter, this note is great. But what’s missing is the information I need as a writer. What did my story do or fail to do? How can I make it better? (Okay, I’ll concede that making my work better is my job, but still, I thought I had it worked out or I wouldn’t have sent it–obviously, outside help is needed!)

In fact, I’m getting so many rejections that my tape-rejections-to-the-wall project had to be discontinued because the sheer weight of the paper was making the pile crumble down the wall onto my printer.

I’m full of hope though. I still haven’t heard from 40% of the places I sent the piece–this means my story still has a shot. I’m also learning, again and again, that the editorial review process needs must occur at geological speeds. I’m hearing in late June about stories I sent out in early January.  Imagine how many life changes I could make in six to ten months! I could have mastered a new hobby, like knitting, by the time the last rejection for my January submission gets to me.

I remain, yours, undiscouraged. (Furthermore, nine days from now my summer classes will have ended and I will finally take up writing again.)

How to Get Published

After years of hemming and hawing, of feeling inadequate, ambivalent, worried, anxious and excited about the notion of being published, I finally this year, in my 40s, have gotten my act together enough to submit some of my long-lingering work for publication. Since the beginning of the year, I have submitted three stories, and I have gotten two stories accepted for publication. This makes me feel quite optimistic.

Here are some (fairly obvious) “secrets”:

1. Guaranteed: You will Never get published if you don’t send your material out into the world. (My first 30 some years of writing related behavior prove this.)

2. Good Likelihood: The more venues to which you submit your stories, the more likely your stories will eventually be accepted for publication. This doesn’t mean be indiscriminate, but as I’ve learned from Writer’s Relief, you should send every story out to at least 25 appropriate publications.

3. Inevitably: The editorial review and response process takes time–I’m just hearing in June about stories I submitted in January. For the first time in my life, I had one story accepted in two different publications, a slightly painful but exciting turn of events.

4. Definitely. If an editor sends you encouraging feedback, follow up! Try to build dialogue, invite additional feedback, figure out if something else in your portfolio might be more suitable. That’s how I got Rosamonde Wakes published.

In short, send out your stories! The pieces that make you shake with excitement will provide enjoyment to others as well. Do your best at writing, then take a deep breath and submit!

New Editing Eyes, Old Writing Sins

here’s a quick list of my writing sins (likely incomplete):

  • I say all cool things I think of twice, or more.
  • My narrative pacing requires tuning–I either rush or linger too long
  • My plots (do they exist?)
  • I underwrite certain key points, or bury them
  • I leave awkward phrasing lying around
  • I like ideas and have too many extraneous bits

and here’s a quick list of my fixes (still under development):

  • I have to pick my favorite image (sometimes, I just toss a coin)
  • I’m cutting down that which does not move the story forward
  • I focus on introducing conflict, or at least suspense, and unforeseen developments into the story
  • I try to make evident the central point(s) of the story
  • I read and reread and make others read out loud, each iteration, so I can figure out what language is confusing or awkward
  • By having a storyline, and focusing on momentum in the beginning and end, I can kill the extras

I’ve massively revised three stories in ten days. It’s been a luxurious stretch — I’ve been indulging in a slight, but growing feeling of mastery over my words and storytelling. Ladies and gentlemen, this is as exciting as writing gets.

Here’s a bonsai metaphor–as a writer, you keep trimming and guiding the growing thing and you hope you don’t end up with a horrifying shapeless garbled web of a bush, and you try not to trim down until you have a stick, but both are tempting avenues. The big trick is to somehow visualize the emerging shape before it’s actually there and then encourage its emergence — on paper. [You have to imagine a ghost of a story into being.] (You have to terrify the page into surrender.) I’ll stop my metaphors here, but you get the picture: Gardener, warrior, Voodoo priest, these are the components of authorship. Let’s throw in monastic novice as well, because although this post is lofty, my writing experience is one of extreme humility and short lived aha moments.

The turning point was watching a brilliant editor, in my case Ellen Parker of FRiGG Magazine, edit down my sleeping beauty story–she helped me increase the narrative speed, cleared the brush of unnecessary ideas, and unburied the ending. It was great observing someone else at work on my text. It liberated me to rework my other texts. Her approach to polishing my story gave me insight into my writing sins and how to move beyond them. I’ve been frantically practicing these skills, and now school starts again.

 

The Tyranny of Endings

My partner accuses me of only writing sad stories. Why does he think this? Because of my endings. I say nay, I write bittersweet stories. Life itself is a wonder of bitter-sweetness, what other endings could I write that would still feel true? This tendency of mine to err on the side of hopeful melancholy probably limits my choices.

Endings. Writing endings is an art I have not yet mastered, and frequently it is the story mechanism with which I have the mightiest struggles. Version after version, new ending after new ending, never striking the right note.

It is a heavy burden. How can I give a satisfying close to my readers? How can I bring earlier themes back but synthesize them or introduce a new idea that builds upon all that has gone before?

Perhaps it is time to devote myself to the problem. Let’s say that over the next month I will study other writers’ techniques for tackling this conundrum. (I might end up where I started, as, let’s face it, my favorite authors also go for the bittersweet in their stories.)

I could also go the simple route and try to write a story with a happy ending. If I keep up with the theme of Matisse’s Paires et Series exhibit, I could write several versions of the same story, striking different notes in each iteration, experimenting specifically with the path to the ending and the conclusion itself. I sense a project in the making.

A Good Week for Editing

After working for ten years on a piece that was almost, but never quite, satisfactorily finished–I decided, inspired by the Matisse show “Paires et Series” I saw in Paris, that if I couldn’t get my story to behave as I had written it originally, and rewritten it countless times, perhaps it was time for a radical rewriting. I opened the existing word document, then opened a new word document next to it, and got to writing, occasionally re-purposing small amounts of text that still worked in version 2. Aha! Working fast over two nights and two days, I’m pleased with the final result. The narrative finally makes sense, it is cohesive, the images have been pared down to the necessary few. The character’s emotional journey has a beginning and an ending and a melancholy swath of a middle.

It was a good week. I significantly reworked two pieces I’ve always loved but never brought to ripeness. They had hung around, rotting green mangoes of work, and I felt angry for not being able to bring them to their full sweetness. Rotting no longer. My shiny new fruit is off to market. I wish I had more weeks like this.

Plot for the Plotless (like me)

Sometimes I look in the mirror of craft and this is what I see: Too many notions, concepts and fancies oozing out of my brain and too few finished stories. There’s good reason that I started my writing career as a poet–I’m full of atmospheric images, but I’m not so good on the plot thing. The plot thing I’m told is largely the point of storytelling. This makes me feel a little bit sad, but it’s also something to strive for.

I tend to get lost in the weeds of images or moods, or possibilities. I hate to define too closely, I want lots of room for my reader to embellish what’s on the page. Or maybe this is laziness. My limitations explain my tendency to re-write fairy tales. Fairy tales give me something to imagine against. Even when I end up writing something wildly different, at least I had a starting point, an arc to reference. This also explains my creative non-fiction habits. I like to re-purpose what exists.

But I do like to write new things, stories that have never existed before (in as much as that’s possible for me, someone who loves stories and has spent her life absorbing other story tellers’ narratives). When I write original fiction, I have to write it in layers. I have to re-write and redirect, edit after edit, isolating each particular strand of the narrative I want to explore. It takes me some time to refresh my ideas. So after each edit, I need to leave my story alone for a while. A few months later, I can revisit, identify a new strand of story to explore, and layer that in, and re-balance what’s already on the page to accommodate this new idea of mine.

As you can imagine, this is a lengthy exploratory process–why did I write what I wrote in the first place, what was I trying to say, which of the many narrative doors I’ve opened do I really want to wander into? But the process does eventually get me to some kind of movement in the story. My characters do change over time, as I do while writing them.

The bad news is that it takes me years to write my way through just one of my stories. Oh well, on with writing.

Salmon

I lived in New York City, Manhattan–so I’d get those spiffy envelopes that said it: New York New York, for five years right after college. I moved to Philly more than a decade ago, but when it came time for my 30th birthday, I had my party in New York City. This was an act of nostalgia for my twenties and an act of love towards the city. I’m facing the next turning of the decade, and I’m headed back to New York. I don’t know what that means. Maybe it means I’m salmon swimming upstream to the watering places that shaped a younger me. I’m going to spend a celebratory weekend, and will make a symbolic stop at my once glamorous watering holes, The Algonquin and the Royalton for one cocktail each. I was so excited to walk in Dorothy Parker’s steps when I was young.

New York still feels incredibly familiar but strange. Manhattan doesn’t need me, it has its own thing going and I haven’t been written into that story. I no longer belong to the New York City timeline. I get occasional glimpses of the city’s evolution. My weekend jaunts are little postcards from the future to my current self which holds the old Manhattan in its mind. In the early 90s, Manhattan still had a kind of wild rugged energy in places, and now the whole of it feels like a polished grand dame to me. Maybe it’s because I’m older and I gravitate to quieter scenes.

Anyway, salmon, swimming upstream, not to spawn but to witness, maybe catch a glimpse of myself rounding the corner. Who’s doing the gazing and who’s being beheld is the mystery.

Dread

This is what I wrote 15 minutes ago: I need to add Guilt as one of my main tags. I’ve procrastinated my way through this evening, and now here I am, bloated with pent-up self loathing. Maybe that’s the new tag: secret self loathing. I do not do new year’s resolutions, and yet if I have one resolution it’s to set aside 15 minutes to write each day. Blogging does Not count. 15 minutes. It sounds so doable. I guess I could close out this page and spend 15 minutes writing about how I have nothing to write. I’m an empty vessel. I’m a buoy. Floaty and hollow. I hate how angry I get with myself. Are you suggesting self acceptance might be a more productive use of my time? Don’t be so mature about it! I’ve got more self loathing to tap into: the supply is stupendous.

I will now take myself by the scruff of my neck and try to work on a story. I’m listening to Adele and I’m setting my phone’s timer. Start.

15 minutes later: That wasn’t so bad. I got some writing down. I need to counter my procrastination impulse–it is strong, like a black hole’s gravitational pull. I did some editing and wrote 400 words in 20 minutes or so, which is fine. I haven’t finished my story, but I am weaving in a new strand, developing the relationship between snow white and grumpy and how that affects grumpy and the evil queen’s relationship. This should be fun. My brain’s just not magically leaping about. I like those magical leaps. Instead I get earnest work which brings its own satisfactions, though they are a bit more quiet and shy. I’m going to see if I do better trying to write in the morning. I’ll say this for getting writing done–the phenomenal Guilt now seems ridiculous. That’s an important lesson to learn (over and over again): Stop feeling guilty, start writing.

Dreaming about writing

Right before I woke up this morning, I was dreaming that I was writing poetry. I was organizing a poetry reading and, as a featured reader, I had to work on creating new poems. Poetry intimidates me, but in this dream really good poems were coming out of me, and I had all sorts of poetry prompt ideas for more good poems. That was my dream. So I woke up, grabbed my laptop, and came downstairs to make coffee. Here I am, not feeling particularly poetical, but feeling like I have an obligation to try to write.

Let me mention that I’m not a “dream” person. I don’t recall my dreams, discuss them, assign meaning to them, or keep a dream diary. I generally think dreams are mental flotsam and jetsam, foaming up while the central controls are down. Dreams sometimes make something pretty or interesting, but they are what my brain does while napping. Neither dreams nor snoring are meaningful to me, and they’re of about equivalent value.

There is one exception. A “truth” dream – A dream that reveals something I know to be true but haven’t acknowledged yet. A truth dream will tell me to pay attention because I need to do something important. I’ve had very few of these dreams. In February, I had a series of dreams that drove me into graduate school.

What makes these dreams different is that I wake up with a strong conviction about my course of action. Waking up with a sense of mission is a very exciting change when my greatest morning ambitions tend to be hygiene and caffeination. Waking up feeling decisive is a nice break from waking up feeling sluggish and a little out of sorts at being awake.

Today, I am listening to my dream, even if all I write is one blog post.

May your dreams point the way to something great in your lives.

Merry post-Christmas time: may you enjoy it in good health and good company.

Reality Smackdown

It’s getting to be that time when I get antsy at not writing anything more creative than student papers–student papers, as far as I can tell, require sourcing good information and then organizing and explaining that information coherently. It’s a skill set for sure, but it doesn’t give me a buzz. Okay, it does give me a buzz, but it’s not a creative buzz, it’s a “look at how well I can follow guidelines” buzz. Reasonable Girl thrives in the academic setting, she’s so reasonable it’s amazing. But Reasonable Girl secretly craves the ultra-rare big sexy rush of creative writing.

Meanwhile, I hear some gurgling in the background, and it’s not my tummy digesting cake (at least not today)–my creative wellspring is gurgling. It’s not an angry gurgle yet, but it could be, soon! The spring is telling me I have a whole backlog of weird half lived fantasies and notions that need some kind of funneling, or my dreams are going to keep getting weirder, and I’m not even taking anti malaria drugs anymore.

I’m doing the multi-identity juggling again. The worker, student, girlfriend, wannabe author smack down is in full force, plus there’s the added pressure of the holidays: I have to be a good family member in a variety of settings as well. In the next 30 days, I’ll hang out with a 5 month old. I’ll also hang out with a 91 and 90 year old. I will be flexible; I will be kind; I will be tired.

The good news is that I only have two more school papers to go. I’ve got pretty much all the pieces I need to complete my generative, academic oeuvres. And then, one blessed month from now, I will have one blessed month to goof off. That month of will be chock full of a ridiculous lack of things to do at night. I will unveil my other superhero identity yet again, the one with the small cape, the writer person who right now has been closet-ted and ignored for a bit too long. Yay small cape. I see you hanging. You’ll be dusted off in no time.

The Business of Writing: A New Hope

I’ve been quite the bee tonight. I sent off my query letter and memoir excerpt to several agents. I also finished a short, 12-page, book proposal to accompany my query, should an agent require this.

I’m expecting a flurry of thanks but no thanks, which is as it should be. But I have to start somewhere, and I’m starting to look for that place tonight.

I should be a) reading about the New Deal for class, or b) packing for my one week work trip to New Delhi, but instead I am c) blogging, while what I really wish I were doing is d) watching a new episode of the BBC’s Sherlock.

No wonder I feel so tired.

PS: yes, the Star Wars reference in my title is totally deliberate. My geek credentials are Platinum.

PPS: Reasonable Girl demands that I get my act together and read. While Grad School doesn’t worry about me, I must worry a bit about Grad School.

Archeological time

Today I started tackling my Countess of Paris story, which is about my father’s family lore, and how people perceive me, and what it’s like hanging out in 5 star hotels for one week a year. I’m in archeological dig mode, where I see what I’ve written and I try to perceive the story beneath the words, the emotion that was surging in me when I picked a particular phrase, and to make sure that this emotion properly animates and is captured in the language. So I did a bunch of rewriting at the beginning of my story, and I think I need to string a couple of themes through, and then totally redo my ending, and then poof. Done. Sounds easy, right?

So I’m back to stealing Stephen King’s metaphor, because he desperately needs the publicity, which is writing as an archeological dig.

Or maybe this kind of writing and editing is more of a distillation process. You start with watery fumes and you try to obtain a purer essence, one pass at a time. So wish me luck. I feel like I’m on a roll. Or at least I’m faking it until I attain it.

(So much so in fact that in a fit of 7:49am delusion I signed up for NaNoWriMo, which is a yearly challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days. That’s a lot of words, and I don’t think I have the time for it, but just imagine, how fun it would be if I actually pulled it off!)

The best surrender

I (triumphantly) snuck in some writing tonight because I realized that strictly speaking I didn’t have to do my assigned reading because class was a general assembly lecture. It felt naughty. It felt good. Writing soothes a part of my soul that nothing else can get to. Also, it felt really good to give up on something mandated and grab something else more important (and alluring) to me.

I watched the Steve Jobs Stanford Commencement speech last night, as a memorial, and he discussed his philosophy of looking in the mirror each morning and trying to assess the day in the lens of “what if this were my last day?” If this were my last day, I would definitely want to spend part of it writing. I’m going to have to get more creative about finding time.

Also, it felt great to try to tackle some pointed feedback I had gotten about going with more emotion in my writing, and trying to cover less ground. I was scared, but I opened up my document, printed it, edited, and I started expanding my favorite sections. My rewrite process felt good. I felt focused and lucid, I could clearly see and cut the fat. And I’m proud of the final product. My piece about Frenchness is finally starting to work. Huzzah.

The Gazillionth Rewrite

“I feel stupid and contagious” allows me to a) honor Nirvana belatedly (jumping on media bandwagon), and b) succinctly express how I feel when my writing group critiques my work. I have been working on my Frenchness and Identity piece for a while. I must be in my fifth major re-write/re-org at the very least. Last night I had the audacity to share the piece with my writing group, and those lovely wizards clarified the million different ways in which my piece is limping along on crutches, with a bad case of…(I don’t know. I want to say charlie horse, but I’m pretty sure that’s wrong) broken ankle. They rightfully exhorted me to simplify, streamline, focus, deepen, add fuller scenes, and feel the rage. These are all excellent suggestions. I’m going to need to put on my small cape to tackle this mess. It’s not like it was a revelatory session, it was a session of dread. I hate being told that what I suspected all along was right–my nagging doubts are totally warranted. My piece doesn’t suck, it’s too tentacular. Tentacular spectacular. Apparently I have the outline of a book buried in an unevenly paced essay. Oh me oh my, I’m gonna have to work like the dickens to figure this out (again), after having worked so hard to figure it out (before) because nothing is damn linear for me when it comes to writing (darn).

“I’m worse at what I do best
And for this gift I feel blessed”

Smells like teen spirit.

Delicious Rejection

I got instantly gratified, or nearly so, with a rejection two days after submitting my work for consideration. This kind of turnaround in the zine industry is rare stuff. So I’m delighted and honored to know where I stand, at least with this one publication.
I am not however disheartened, probably because the best advice I ever got about writing was to submit often and fearlessly and expect numerous rejections, and count each rejection as taking one step closer to getting something accepted.
The advice giver, my friend Nina, is an abstract painter, so she knows a thing or two about the brutal marketplace of art and esthetics.
So every time I get a rejection slip, I stick it to the wall as a reminder to keep going out into the world. I have my NO pile, nice and thick and chaotic, and my Yes pile, two pages deep. But I’m cool with that. Because I’m not nearly systematic enough about submitting my work. For example, my last rejection came on August 29, and the one before that in May.
People this is a wake up call! I need my work to go out and about into the world. The marketplace of ideas.
Also, I am being held in a lovely cold embrace as I write this post. It’s perking me right up.

two of my favorite things, together

Delicious, nutritious, loving

Writing’s other face: Submitting

So I finally got around to doing what I probably should have been doing all along–tonight I sent in three chapters from my memoir as submissions to literary mags. I can expect resounding rejections, but at least I’m doing what I think I’m supposed to do–which is opening myself to criticism and rejection by letting total strangers read my work. It’s kind of the walking-in-the-park part of being a flasher, if you’ll forgive this tawdry (perhaps unfortunate, but amusing to me) analogy. After spending all the time carefully hand sewing the exact model of my London Fog raincoat (i.e. my body of stories), I am venturing out into the world, displaying my wares, waiting for the horrified screams of bystanders (or their silent equivalent, the form rejection letter). Luckily, I’m happy to say that law enforcement, common morality, and decency rules don’t have to come into the mix of my literary submissions. Has this metaphor gone too far? I’ll let it rest for now.

So there. I’m not doing any major writing, but at least I’m doing the better part of the lazy lady’s alternative: forcing other people to read my writing. Maybe this is the best aspect of Reasonable Girl. I’ve got limited time and patience, but I’m making do with what I’ve got.

Imagined Universes and the Christmas Letter

You know how families send around those Christmas letters detailing the year’s accomplishments and memories for the family as a whole and for its members? I got jealous. Single girls don’t send these letters. So I tried to write one (but maybe that’s already been done and it’s called Bridget Jones’ Diary) and it’s harder than it looks. I determined that in order to qualify for Christmas letter writing, I needed to have a family. So I concocted the only kind of family I could–an imaginary baby. Once I went through the process of imagining my family, it occurred to me that my life was full of imaginary things, or at least my mind was in constant dialogue running amok between my dreams, my perceptions, my past, my imagined future, my desires, and my realities. This was rich terrain. I wanted to write about identity, my identity, but I wanted to capture the influence of my multiple internal dialogues, including the very strong relationship I had with the imagined future.

Where did that realization come from? I knew about the imagined future because I had realized that the one aspect of breaking up (many times, over several decades) I found most difficult to deal with cognitively was the loss of my imagined future. It was an imagined possession that I truly missed having stolen.

So that’s where I got started. Also, I’ve had a small, but potent relationship with the idea of multiple universes, in a very self-serving way. Whenever I feel constrained by my lived life and current choice sets, I like to imagine multiple other universes where I made radically different choices at critical junctures. There’s the me that spent a year abroad with the Rotary Club, the me that went to Bryn Mawr, the me that never left New York City, the me that got an MFA, the me that married young and disastrously, the me that is a junkie, the me that is a professor. They comfort me. And they remind me of my possibilities.
So those are the seeds of the memoir. The imagined. The possible. My identity. And my history (though I am more interested in the future than in the past, as a life philosophy).

my small cape

This is my second blog site, but something about owning my own domain has changed the game for me. Maybe because it feels like I’m finally making a sizable commitment to my craft. You heard me–I really mean it this time (the claiming of a writerly identity I whisper).

The creation of this blog (a banal enough occurrence in the greater scheme) makes me feel like I’ve called a press conference and shown up, unmasked, holding a pen and wearing a cape. The cape wearing makes me slightly more sophisticated than my Jane Austen action figure because she doesn’t have a cape. (I feel bad when I look at her because I’ve lost one of her two accessories–the book is gone, but the feather tipped writing utensil remains.)

I’m so excited to write to you, dear reader, that I woke up at 5am unprompted for no good reason at all, besides my being hyper at the prospect of travel, studies, my shiny new two page website, manuscript readers, and the beginning of the school year at work.

My brain is no good whatsoever when it’s sleep deprived, so today’s modest writing goal was merely to print out three of my short stories (yay fiction!) so I could edit them in Montreal.

And now I’ve napped, and thus can blog. A good day to all.