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.)

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.

The Appeal of Pessimism

I was sitting in a lecture last Thursday with the Dean of Penn’s School of Public Policy and Practice, and he was telling us about the US’s dismal record when it comes to child mortality due to abuse. The number of children dying from neglect and abuse has remained constant since the 1970s, despite the application of money, care, time, policy and staff.

These are the sorts of encouraging statistics and lectures one frequently encounters in social work school. The first year has been one of exceeding pessimism. Teachers and Deans are at great pains to describe the exact scope and hopelessness of the situation(s) and ask what exactly you think you can do as a lone practitioner in this big ugly world with its big ugly systems that replicate problems, stigma and power structures, or create new ones, while trying to alleviate suffering.

The Dean went on to explain in Kafkaesque detail, how bureaucracies, like all other malignant life forms, exist only to thrive and grow [not to solve problems efficiently].

{I’ll mention right now that he did wrap up the downbeat lecture on a note of possibility–that it takes coalitions and the right timing to instigate change, that the right policy at the right time can have a significant, positive effect, and he mentioned Social Security as changing the status of the elderly and dragging them out of poverty, and the GI Bill for creating the middle class in the 1950 and 1960s.}

But the reason I’m writing this post is to reflect on the lure, the allure, the temptation to listen to the litany of oft-repeated mistakes (the deadly mix of good intentions, poor policy design, restrictive benefit measures, and assorted gate-keeping and citizen shaming) and think of social ills as totally intractable. To think that having a miserable set of underclasses is part of the natural order, that no matter what we do, x% is going to be addicted, homeless, mentally ill, beaten and abused, illiterate etc.

It’s very tempting, after a couple centuries of good intentions and poor results, to think that nothing can be done. You have to be realistic.

well…

When I get in one of those dark corners of the mind, I give myself a stern talking to. I go back to home base. I question any offering of “norms”. This is the way it is and will remain is not a good enough answer. There wouldn’t be different national rates of, say, child mortality at birth, if there weren’t more or less effective approaches to dealing with pregnancy and child delivery. These national approaches to health, welfare and problem solving are societally and sociologically driven. There are structural forces at work. They have to be evaluated, confronted, mitigated, and ultimately dismantled.

I’m not calling for a revolution, I’m calling for an evidence based approach–nothing new my dear, luckily I’ve become a social worker in the age of empiricism and sound qualitative research methodologies–intelligent incrementalism, and the marriage of bottom up community work and top down policy work. There’s a lot of work to be done, but at least we have a pretty good idea of what has and has not worked to build upon.

Hospital Time

I’m in the waiting room at a hospital while someone I love undergoes a minor procedure. Shouldn’t take much, just my friend’s sedation, which is why I’ve come in as the caretaker. It’s weird sitting in the beige waiting room, trying to trust strangers who have taken custody of the body of a person I care about. I’m not going to witness much of anything, except the groggy end of this short odyssey in medical world.

I’m sitting here, remembering my own minor procedures, and what they call the “twilight” sedation, which is a total joke, there’s no twilight: no beautiful blue sky, no bright moon, no twinkling stars. There’s a giant grey hole in your memory and the associated events are utterly irretrievable.

They try to neutralize the presentation of the experience as much as possible. There are forms to fill, a medical bracelet to wear. The forms, the pen, are soothing. This is something you can take charge of, this is an activity at which you excel-—filling out forms, giving your details. People are polite and efficient. There are procedures and rites of passage, all bureaucratic. Staff and nurses and the doctor will ask you your birth date at each step of the way, and your ability to say “yes, that’s right,” calms every body down. You are who you are supposed to be, you are supposed to be going through this–it’s agreed. And you strip off your clothes and they put the I.V. in and they wheel you into the procedure room, and you remember nothing.

The process is part brutality and part civility—they will be polite and then they will probe you, sample your tissues, look inside, evaluate your body’s secrets on a giant screen.

But this time, I’m on the safe side of the door. My tension, like the risk to my friend, is slight, but it’s quite real.

The Fairy Tale Craze

Timing. It’s a killer.

I wrote a novella-length feminist adaptation of Rapunzel in 2004. I’ve been trying to write complementary stories ever since. It’s been slow work, but now I’ve got close and far adaptations of Rapunzel, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Red Riding Hood. And then I’ve got Stan, my devil story, which is an odd tale that doesn’t fit comfortably anywhere, though he is very interesting. If I put all these stories together I’ve got a slim, but compellimg volume that makes me feel like I’m close to finishing another short book of writing.

Here’s the problem. I’m obviously neither prolific nor fast, and my little volume is not quite finished even as fairy tale retellings become the rage on TV and in the movies. I’m watching my thing get played out in the commercial arena and I’m not quite ready for prime time. This is an odd feeling. Like if all your life you’ve loved persimmons and no one talks about them and in your spare time you’re slowly working on a persimmon cookbook; then you wake up and you start seeing persimmons on all the menus in all your favorite restaurants and in all the newspapers. Yup, that’s what this year feels like.

There’s also a bit of Tantalus in this tale. Success (or its attempt) is not quite within reach.

I guess, and here goes further proof of how slow I am, that it’s time to redouble efforts and concentrate on what I can do to get my work to market sooner rather than later.

The Inevitable

Why is aging so surprising? After all, it happens continuously. It’s happening right now. I know that. I guess the surprise lies in being reminded forcefully that I’m not the spring chicken I once was. Facing up to the fact that I’m a pile of poorly tended bones in a state of constant degradation causes me heartache. Oh entropy. I feel like I’m unusually prickled by my currently impending anniversary, but I think that’s my imagination running away with me. It’s totally cyclical. I always dread the birthday, no matter what the year or marker is.

The dread’s a bit ridiculous. A friend once asked me what age I would need to be to feel young again, and I picked a number, and the number wasn’t wildly off the current state, just a couple years’ reprieve. That’s all I want–730 days. A window of opportunity. Biggish, but not immensely large. 730 days. Can you imagine what we could do if we were told, as soon as we turned 30, that over the next 15 years we had 730 days of reprieve to spend as we wanted. No responsibilities on those days. Just days for joy and self care.

Since I don’t have the short term time machine I so long for, I’m celebrating the anniversary of my 37 birthday. If I were a bit more put together, I would do research about what was going on then, and invent special rituals honoring those memories: Relive a glass of wine by drawing a picture, lighting a candle, reading a poem out loud with a sense of reverence.

I guess the alternative to nostalgia is the plunge forward. The new glass of wine.
So I’m trying for the equilibrium between these ideas: A bit of anniversary, a bit of new wine.

Play

Every day since the semester ended I’m feeling a little bit lighter and happier. Today I woke up and realized I was totally carefree. No pending homework. No feelings of guilt or obligation. I felt like a floaty balloon. A balloon that wanted a long nap.

There’s plenty to do, but a lot of it is going to the movies, watching movies, napping, reading guilty pleasures and fibrous fiction. I get to do with my mind whatever I want. Extravagant feeling.

In a nice turnaround, today for the first time in a long time, I wrote some fiction. 1000 words. I had a longstanding plot problem and I solved it. I’m facing my usual challenge with the ending, but that’s not so bad.
I’m feeling blessedly playful.

I have plenty to tackle in the next two weeks, but my chores will be book-ended with silly fun. Even having the time and leisure to dedicate to my chores fills me with relief and gratitude.

The holidays are looking brighter than ever. Merry merry.

Sure I can procrastinate, it’s Christmas

In addition to my cornucopia of typical procrastinating techniques, the holiday season adds a veritable arsenal of intriguing options for goofing off and Not Writing my last two academic papers. (Aside: How much time is there between Thursday night and Tuesday night? Lots, right?)

Anyway, I’m enjoying one of my very favorite end of year rituals, the thorough scouring of best of the year album lists, which means spending hours zipping through sonic samples on amazon, picking just the right new additions to my MP3 library to make me feel aurally spanking fresh in the new year.

Earlier tonight, I decorated our Charlie Brown-sized Christmas tree. Decorating Christmas trees makes me all perky and makes me sing Christmas songs to myself. Where does the joy come from?

I like giving presents, but I have a rocky prior relationship with Christmas. The Holiday Trees, however, escape my seasonal wrath. I just love that I get to take a very big plant form that has no business spending time in my living room, and I force it to spend at least two weeks with me indoors, and I make it up like a Barbie doll or an aging rock star–it’s swathed in light reflecting glittery things.

Or maybe it’s about the miniatures–I love artfully arranging the shiny miniature ornaments I buy at the German store in the Christmas Village on the tree.

Maybe my moments of seasonal magic are tied to my memories of getting up in the middle of the night in high school and going down to the couch in the living room where I would doze off to the blinking Christmas lights, so faery magic pretty.

I also enjoy the less classic holiday songs including, Elvis’s Blue Christmas and All I Want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth, and Zat You, Santa Claus?

Other easy seasonal distractions:
1. Watching holiday comedies
2. Going to holiday parties
3. Deciding I haven’t been reading enough fiction lately and researching those “best of” lists (can you tell I’m a sucker for a best of?)
4. Shopping for gifts I have not budgeted for, but excusing the indulgence for the sake of those I love
5. Writing Christmas cards to people far and wide
6. Listening to and singing holiday songs
7. Planning my birthday outings
8. Planning my spring vacations
9. Writing holiday letters to myself on futureme.org
10. Finding new humor websites like theoatmeal.com
11. Holiday themed status updates on facebook
12. Going to visit relatives not exactly for the holidays, but within earshot of the holidays
13. Seriously pondering committing to a December cleaning spree, so I can face the New Year with pride and less clutter

Merry, merry, everyone.

Not my best time of year, frankly

So there are times, let’s say hypothetically November to March, where I dwell in a mild state of perpetual existential unease. December and January are the toughies, because I face the holidays, my annual self assessment, my family’s gaze, and my approaching birthday. I’m age-indifferent, and yet …

So in this precarious period of the year, I have to seek out small pleasures to keep me afloat on a moment to moment basis. Today, these pleasures have included coffee, napping on my office floor before class, a brief walk in the blazing noon sunshine, bourbon on ice, slices of hot sopressata, half a chocolate brownie, red berry smoothie, 1/3 of a toblerone bar, mint green tea, vinegar sea salt chips, Mozart’s requiem, goofing off, and writing a blog post. (You notice the food angle; I do too.) Last night it was watching endless movie trailers. The night before it was a viewing of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, with repeated viewings of Diamond’s a Girl’s Best Friends. (I don’t like diamonds, but I do love Marylin’s flirty choreography, the pure girlishness of it all.)

The energy level, generally, is so lackluster that tonight my professor gave up in defeat at the lack of response from my classmates and sent us home 45 minutes early. I don’t have a good metaphor for this one. A last minute stay of an execution would be too dramatic, and winning the lottery equally improbable, yet the experience was delicious. We sat there and stared at him and he had to clarify and repeat, “Yes, class is over.”

I’m finding the stretch between Thanksgiving break and Christmas break unusually relentless this year. I’m trying not to throw the towel in, exactly, but it is soggy and moldy and I kind of want to get rid of it.

In the meantime, I’ll have to settle for imaginary hugs and imaginary cocktails with my gchat friend during work hours. The notion of an imaginary massage does a lot to relax me, visualization really is everything.

Hugs to all through the holiday season. Whirled peas and whatnot.

Root Canal

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the words Root or Canal, the same way there’s nothing inherently wrong with the phrase Up All Night and the word Working.

I’m not going to spell it out, but trust me, it’s bad.

On the plus side of the equation, I found the most awesome blog: Feminist Ryan Gosling.

I finally located my perspective somewhere under a pile of weep. I realized that I tend to have my little meltdowns well after the crisis has passed. Like many children my age, first things go bad, then I handle them, then I realize what I went through and suffer from emotional hiccups. Then I calm down and see that everything is going to be okay.

So there. Everything is going to be okay. Plus a little helping of Feminist slogans: Hey Girl.

Does Pandora Mock Me?

I’m sitting brutally alone in a business class lounge, preparing for two long flights, and I’m by far the most awkward not-quite-first class duckling to walk these moderately well decked halls. In proof, who else would find herself strangling a full water bottle so that it splashes the fridge below and soaks the linens above. I tried to be discreet after bathing the credenza.

In my shame, I’m seeking refuge in my friendly electronic medium, and I’m wired up like a Superman villain (3 I think), with my laptop charging, my iPhone charging and my earphones in so I don’t scream at the gentle lounge music.

I turn on Pandora for a touch of distraction and voila, Nina Simone sings “every time we say goodbye” which is the saddest parting song I know of–compound this with the patented mournful Nina effects: Voila (again): A pity party in the corner by the door until they denounce me to the classy authorities.

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).

Just like Inigo Montoya: I hate waiting

One of the horrible aspects of writing is how much waiting it requires.

I hate waiting. just like Inigo Montoya in the Princess Bride movie.

Things you have to wait for when you’re a writer:

 

  1. Ideas (a spark of a notion that makes you want to write)
  2. Ideas about your ideas (plots, characters, scenes)
  3. Clarity on the piece’s structure
  4. Figuring out your beginning and your ending
  5. Your friends and allies to tell you what they think of your miserly draft
  6. For the energy to go through another round of revisions
  7. For answers (likely rejections) to your submissions to publishing bodies
  8. For prospective agents to reply to your query letter
  9. For prospective agents to reply to your manuscript
  10. For prospective publishers to reply to your agent’s manuscript submissions

REPEAT

Phew. I’m on step 5 and I’m already in agony. Who knows what will happen next.