Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Awesome Things

Here are a few awesome things I've seen recently.

Love the natural world? Love words? Go here and read "Antevernals in the Anthropocene" on The Last Word on Nothing blog, in which Michelle Nijhuis (among other things) suggests coining new terms for natural phenomena in our changing climate.

In fact, the entire blog is awesome--varied and interesting. As they say on their "About" page, they provide "Science: clear, crafty, and delivered to your door." Assuming your door is a computer, I guess. Anyway, lots of great writers, lots of great content.

Here's an awesome fund-raising idea: Four anthologies, each describing a different season, all to raise money for the (UK) Wildlife Trusts. They'll be released throughout the year and are edited by Melissa Harrison (whose fiction I raved about earlier) (and who also has a new book, Rain: Four Walks in English Weather on its way in early March).

You can get the Spring anthology now. (Too bad the season isn't here in real life. Yet.)

This anthology series reminds me of a cool project at the University of Arizona Poetry Center: A Poetic Inventory of Saguaro National Park. The organizer of the project asked nearly 100 writers to produce a poem or piece of prose about a specific species in the park--from bark scorpion to jumping cholla (a cactus). I happened to be visiting my sister when they held a reading, and it was fun to hear the variety of work. And overall, what a neat way to involve artists in a close examination of a particular place--that gives others a way into enjoying the place, too.

The best part of "finds" like those above? They exist as products (finished writing, blogs, books, journals), but they also exist as inspiration. What have others written about changing seasons--or one of the dominant seasons--in your part of the world? What species exist right outside your door, and how can you pay attention to them and inspire others to, as well? How can you team with others who are expert and interested in some of the same things to offer interesting writing? Can you find a way to support organizations near and dear to you?

Awesome. And inspiring. Maybe spring is here after all.
Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Solving Problems

Q: How is assembled-at-home furniture like a manuscript?

Some ten years after putting together our "wardrobe" (a credenza from an office supply store), my husband looked at it and said, "Why don't those doors latch?"

I've been wondering for years without caring enough to find out. My husband, however, took the doors off, took the hardware off them, got out a measuring tape, and started puzzling over what he found.

At one point he called me into the bedroom and pointed at the insides of the doors. "Does this make sense to you? The pre-drilled holes show the latch goes here, like this, but how would that work? Why would the latch slide up, instead of sideways in front of this thing here? They must have drilled it wrong at the factory."

I was working on something else at the time, so I shrugged and said, "Not sure. Are you going to re-drill it?"

"I guess. That's the only thing that makes sense," he said.

I disappeared into my other project. Two hours later, he came into one of the (many, far too many) rooms where I've spread papers across a horizontal surface, the better to frown at them.

"So, I dropped a screw and figured out the door latch. The bottom surface of a shelf has a slot that holds the latch. I wouldn't have seen it if I hadn't dropped that screw. So all I have to do is put the doors back on and make sure they're level, and the latch will slide up into the slot."

"Huh," I said. And thought of the novel I'm revising.

Not because I wasn't paying attention--because this novel I'm revising is like that wardrobe. I think. Maybe. I haven't been working on it ten years (yet) (close, though).  I'm revising the first full draft, but it had been through many versions along the way. Yet revising it isn't going quite the way I thought it would.

When you study literature, you develop skill at taking writing apart. When you study and work as an editor for years, you develop skill at clarifying thoughts--addressing everything from basic grammar and punctuation to word choice to organization and motivation. Neither is like writing, which is part of what makes writing fun--it's a stretch, it's organic/generative/creative blah blah et cetera.

I did those literature/editorial things for years before the creative writing thing. Recently, I've edited both fiction and nonfiction manuscripts, for publishers and for individual writers. The experiences have been both fun and finite. So I thought revising this novel, once I had a full draft, would be like that: you get the thing, you point out the issues, you give it back.

Ha. Is revising fun? Yes. Finite? I hope so. The thing is, I'm responsible for fixing those issues. I keep thinking, "Why would this be like this? It should be like that." Then I change it. Then I put away the laundry or wash dishes or drive to town to run errands or hit the treadmill--and drop a screw. I see how "this" instead of "that" could work after all.

Then I have a choice, and here's where I keep hoping for finite: if "this" is better than "that," what else changes when I pick "this"? And what of those things is better than the options that come from "that," and which of the options from "that" is better? What am I giving up, what am I gaining? Plus each thing that changes could be its own "this"/"that" choice.

It's multiverses--and horizontal surfaces and papers to frown at--all the way down, y'all.

Q: How is assembled-at-home furniture like a manuscript?
A: Sometimes the initial design really does make sense. And sometimes it doesn't. And it's up to the assembler to figure that out.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


No one could ruin a Saturday morning like my father, bless him. At breakfast, he'd deflate my hope of a long mindless day--endless channel-surfing (yes, walking back and forth from the couch to the black-and-white TV to see what Saturday morning drivel was on all four channels) and re-reading books I already knew by heart--simply by asking, "What USEful thing are you going to do today?"

USEful to him meant cleaning out the garage. Picking up my clothes or otherwise cleaning my room. Clearing my homework and schoolbooks off the dining room chair where I tended to dump them (and finishing my homework, but that was a given, not really USEful). Helping my mother cook Sunday dinner, organizing the stuff on and in her desk, or matching plastic margarine tubs with lids.

In other words, doing something to contribute to the family--something my parents wanted me to do, not necessarily something I wanted to do, and preferably what they told me to do.

Since then, my definition of USEful has changed slightly. Sure, stuff similar to the list above has to get done, though I'm doing it for my husband and me, not for my parents. The "homework" and "schoolbooks" are now simply "work" and "books," but I still leave stuff lying around on more horizontal surfaces than I should. There's always laundry. And I still spend an inordinate amount of time messing around with food storage containers.

But "doing something USEful"? It's no longer the sad trombone phrase of my youth.

These days, USEful means something tangible I do to help someone. Sometimes that "someone" is me, but more often, if I really feel USEful, I'm helping someone else. The absolute best, most fun USEful times are when I get to do something that otherwise wouldn't be done at all, or that wouldn't be done with the (ahem) attention and care I bring to it.

All of which is to say that I've been immersed in a project for someone else during the past few days. I'm contributing something of value. He's grateful. I'm happy to do it. And I get to use skills (establishing and enforcing consistency, mostly*) that create an orderly product.

In fact, I've found feeling USEful to be REALLY FUN! My younger self would be astonished. I bet my father wouldn't be.

*OK, OK, I'll confess. Since I can wax annoying about how "nobody appreciates careful copyediting these days," you might imagine I'm doing that. However, not even--I'm doing ticky administrative schtuff, like stripping and adding formatting, and running search/replace for two spaces in a row, all to bring uniformity to a giant document. It's so INCREDIBLY satisfying!
Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Win/Win

Dear Esteemed Literary Journal:

Thank you for considering my recent submission. As I said in my submission cover letter, I appreciate the time and effort required to read it--and to do all the other tasks involved in managing a literary journal these days.

After reading the form rejection letter accompanying your rejection, I'm really grateful you chose not to publish my piece.

I submitted it to you because your journal has a really good reputation. But I submitted against my better judgment. I really, REALLY shouldn't have. I was dubious after subscribing for a year, when I didn't particularly enjoy reading any of the issues. They weren't cohesive, unique, or even interesting. Only one short story made me sit up and say "Hmm." No "wow" at all.

So I should have known better to start with: My work and your journal just aren't a good fit. But, as I said, your reputation...well, it's enticing. And you say you're open to new-to-you writers, new work, general submissions. So I gave it a shot.

Your rejection letter just confirmed my suspicion. Read one way, it's full of vapid business jargon that doesn't actually say anything. I expected better attention to content--the actual words you're using to represent your program--from a literary journal that's tied to a major university.

Plus--and here's my suspicious self at work--it's possible to read the jargon as an indirect and sly insult to the work the person submitted. Talking about the high quality of the work you turn down doesn't actually compliment any particular writer's work. (Again, a little more care with words would serve you well.) I expected more empathy from a journal staffed by a reputable MFA program. After all, the students who are evaluating submissions will be on the receiving end of rejections some day.

But I hope I'm wrong. Given that writers whose work is rejected are bound to be a little sensitive, I probably am.

In any case, I'm pleased to be able to save us both some time in the future--I won't bother sending my work your way again, and you won't have to go to the trouble of rejecting it. Hey, a real win/win!

Best wishes,