Saturday, September 25, 2010

While You're At It...

Our house has become Rejection Central in the past ten days or so. I am receiving rejections from places I'd forgotten I submitted work to.

I did wonder, because writers have that kind of ego, whether I am the target of pre-emptive rejections. Maybe word got around all of North America that I've been submitting, and the lit mags have taken a proactive approach.

You know: "The Journal of Really Good Writing is desperately searching for new, fresh voices. We publish new writers, seasoned writers, breathing writers, dead ones--in fact, anyone writing in any genre. Except you, Marion Agnew. No, not the one who lives in Ottawa. You there, in Thunder Bay. Don't even think about it."

However, I keep a spreadsheet. So I have, in fact, submitted to these places who saw fit to reject my work.

As they have said somewhere but apparently taken off their submissions page, The Fiddlehead does indeed send really great rejection notes.

In fact, their notes are so great that they made me take a hard look at the rest of my life. Suddenly, it felt lackluster. Listless. Tired and sad. So I decided to write back.

Dear Fiddlehead,

Thank you so much for your wonderfully kind words about my manuscript, which you are still not going to publish in spite of the many stellar qualities about which you wax so eloquent. As long as you are saying fabulous things about the quality of my writing, this sample of which you are definitely, oh-so-definitely not going to publish, how about mixing in nice things in a few other areas? Like could you mention how svelte I am looking lately, and how I don't look a day over 30, even though you are still not publishing my writing and I will likely die with a filing cabinet full of unpublished manuscripts, and too many cats? Thanks.

In all seriousness, I do appreciate receiving rejections if the alternative is silence. As I have written about before, specifically, here. And I really appreciate kind words and encouragement.

But another acceptance, sometime soon...well, that would be, you know, BETTER. Which means it's time to look up email submission processes, or in rare cases, get out the stamps and manila envelopes.

Discipline. Uh-huh.
Sunday, September 19, 2010


I'm going through a combination "busy time" and "dry spell."

As the fall starts, groups of which I am a part get back together. Administrative stuff needs to be done. Events scheduled. People hired. Posters thrown together and disseminated. Plans made, and many of them are mighy grand plans, indeed, since we're all rejuvenated from summer.

And all of these busy-busy activities seem awfully tempting in the morning--if I just do these things, this X & Z, then I can mark them off my list. The novel, the stories--they'll be there at 11, or just after lunch, or I'll just go for a walk, and hey it's 5 and the day's done! Guess I'll get back to it tomorrow! (Or....)

As a complicating factor, some of us are not feeling rejuvenated from summer. Some of us are a little frazzled from all the people. Some of us have come to the point in our creative work where satisfactory work is elusive. Perhaps our characters (more people!!) are surly. They demand more exciting things to do and yet are not at all specific about what those exciting things might be.

(Playing "bring me a rock, not that rock" with a human boss is maddening and demoralizing. Playing it with a character whose only flesh and blood is yours, whose actions are boring even you, when you are the person who ostensibly creates and re-creates her--well, that's the recipe for insanity.)

My point was that for some of us, eating chocolate-oatmeal macaroons is at the outer limits of our creative imagination. Nothing sounds interesting, much less inspiring.


Pinned into my bulletin board is a page out of O Magazine from several years ago. It's an essay on Faith by Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones. (The essay is available online, but it's in a form that may violate copyright so I'll let you google.) In highlighter, I have written in the margin the take-away for me: "What must substitute for faith is discipline."

As someone who struggles with both faith and discipline, I cheered loudly when I read this. No I didn't. However, I knew then and I know now that it's true.

When I exert the discipline to sit, just sit, as near to a "first thing" as I can stand in a morning, and devote that time to my creative writing, good things happen. Also, the busy-busy admin work for others gets done. When I don't, they don't.

When I put my creative writing first, there's time for everything. When I don't, there isn't.

It's not logical. It may not be factual. However, it is true.

To sit and do "my" writing, I don't have to have faith, which is good because I usually don't. I don't have to believe I'm doing good work. I just have to sit down and bring another rock. And another one. And another. Eventually I'll have a road or maybe a wall (or a cathedral!!) or maybe a just a gigantic pile of rocks, but I'll have something.

So, discipline. Sometimes that's all there is to draw on. But sometimes, that's exactly what you need.

That and chocolate oatmeal macaroons. (At least this batch has lasted longer than 24 hours. Discipline breeds discipline.)
Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Fundamental Things Apply

In creative pursuits, I do this thing (that likely showcases the size of my ego, but the need for creators to have egregious egos is a post for another day): I know the rules but think they somehow don't apply to me. And not in a productive way, either.

I also don't mean the rules of grammar. Them ones, I have a passing familiarity with, and also too, I do believe in having a reason to break them there things. (Hat tip to Stephen King.)

I'm talking about "rules" in the sense of "how to solve this problem," or "strategies I have found useful," or "received wisdom that may or may not be true but works for me, the successful writer." Rules as in tools.

Which, of course, DO apply to me, regardless of my default position of "sounds great but it probably won't won't work for me." (It's my Eeyore nature with a splash of terminal uniqueness.)

Anyway, rules. (Or tools.) Like these.

1. Goals, such as minimum time spent writing or minimum word counts, are good to have. Yes, goals for your creative work, that work you can't exactly predict. And yet, when you write a minimum number of words per day, you can accumulate a novel over time. I have accumulated about a half novel so far, much of which I don't remember writing, because after that 500 to 1000 words, I went and did something else that day. And I could pay attention to those other projects in part because I had done the creative thing. (Goals! Hat tip to "Everybody.")

2. First drafts are allowed be bad, bad, bad. (That's three words toward my word limit!) I was always a "Mozart," whose first draft mostly resembles his finished work (because he did a lot of work in his head). (This generalization may not be true but I still like that scene in Amadeus where he dictates the Requiem note for note.) I still operate this way, mostly, in writing that's a job. In creative work, however, I find that I am a Beethoven, whose manuscripts reportedly were revised nearly beyond recognition. (Drafts! Hat tip to Anne Lamott, among others.)

3. Writing is like cheese: letting it age for awhile makes for a better final product. In fact, this has become a good "tell" for me: if I still like something after letting it "set" for awhile, it probably has something that others will like. Or it may not, but I at least have the interest in the work to revise it so that it does. (Revise! This is another "everybody.")

4. E.L. Doctorow is reported to have said of writing something like this: "Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." I have found, in working on this novel, that I still can't map their journeys, but I know the general direction these characters are going, and I can take them (or they can take me) another couple of thousand words in that direction. Same thing the next day. And the next. (Just write!)

Here's a new one I've found that may also apply to me. A soundtrack is a useful path into a specific world. Screenwriter John August, as well as writers in other genres, like this Canadian example, creates a soundtrack for each writing project. (Read about his reasoning here.) As he writes, he listens to the soundtrack.

I have read about those who create soundtracks (and in Jennnifer Crusie's case, collages) for years. "Great idea for them," I thought, emphasis on the "them," for no reason other than assuming that for some reason it wouldn't work for me. (Plus my suspicion, also shared by Doctorow, that creating soundtracks is not the same as writing.) And then I read that John August finds soundtracks useful for switching among projects.

Of course! Songs like "Sunshine of Your Love" can take me back decades, to the outdoor swimming pool in the heat of the summer. Of course that power could help me move from a novel in the morning to the short story revisions in the afternoon. Dang, this rule could apply to me, too!

And by "dang," I mean "hooray!" (Though yes, it doesn't "count" as writing.) Here's hoping it will be as useful as the other rules/tools have been!
Saturday, September 4, 2010

Two of the Best

Recently, I have been trying to say "I was wrong" when it needs to be said. This post is far less maudlin but no less heartfelt, because I really was wrong!

A conversation with the excellent writer and blogger Susan at Mama Non Grata turned to blogs about parenting. Through the BlogHer links at Mama Non Grata I had sampled other blogs and found them less interesting than Susan's. Partly that's because Susan's blog is well written and inherently interesting, and partly because the others...weren't so much.

It's nothing personal, and that's the problem right there. I mean, I'm not a mother, so I don't need to read blogs about parenting for practical, personal reasons. Being a step-grand-mother is a totally different level of responsibility. If the step-g-kids don't eat while they're here, I shrug and send them home hungry. For example. (Not every time. They eat. Mostly.) So my personal interests lay elsewhere.

I have always made an exception for Mama Non Grata. The blog is, in part, about how a "nontraditional" family is the same as all other families, except in all the ways it's not. My own family has its "nontraditional" elements, and then of course I'm interested in a general way in all the ways people are human in this world. Plus now I know Susan and Rachel. Plus "What does 'nontraditional family' even mean anymore?" is always an interesting question. So for all those reasons, I'm a reader.

In our conversation about parenting blogs, Susan urged me to give them another try. I said "maybe" and thought "meh." Yet in the fragmented whirlwind that August became in this house, I did. And man, was I wrong!

I had run across Finslippy before and found it humorous, but I hadn't felt called to read regularly. Then one afternon when I was trying not to fret about impending company, I started reading the blog from its beginning in 2004. And the voice of Alice Bradley, Finslippy's writer, just charmed me.

What a fascinating window into the past six years of the online and blogging worlds. Finslippy addresses lots of stuff, some of it explicitly. Like
1. Privacy issues when writing about family members.
2. The persona you create when you blog (like that of columnist) and the relationship between that persona and yourself.
3. The difference between writing something that's true and something that's factual.
4. The overwhelming need people have to tell other people (especially mothers, maybe?) what they're doing wrong (in the comments, which is part of why I don't do comments; I have enough voices in my head critiquing my every move, thanks).
5. The commmunity that develops when a writer does allow comments and writes honestly about personal issues, and the support that community can offer in troubled times.
6. The hot-button issue for our culture that the relationship between children and food has become.
7. The benefits and drawbacks to living in the suburbs and the city; how do you know where home is?
8. How to watch someone you love struggle with something difficult while wanting desperately to step in and fix it, though you know you shouldn't and can't anyway.
9. Et cetera.

And no, I'm not going to link to specific posts. That's like linking to one page in a book.

The experience of reading it from start to now (not "finish") was great. For one thing, it was perfect chunks of reading for the bits of time I had. And for another, reading blogs is like sanctioned voyeurism. Who doesn't love sneaking a peek into someone else's journal? It was a whole different perspective on creativity.

So here's what I really need to say.
1. Susan: you were right and I was wrong, and I'm very glad about that. There are very interesting blogs about parenting out there, even for someone who's not a parent.
2. Everyone else: read Mama Non Grata and give Finslippy a try. And hey, if you're wondering how to jumpstart your creativity this fall, why not set aside a preconceived idea and try reading something new? It's quite refreshing.