Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Working Hard

One of the refrains in the writing world*: "You can control only how hard you work."

In other words, you can't control what "they" are publishing these days or two years from now. You can't control who else applies for an opportunity you want or need. You can't control who evaluates those applications. You also can't control world events that may make it more (or less) difficult to share your work--a new form of technology will or won't make digital reading or paper reading obsolete, a shortage of X makes it harder or easier for Y to happen, and that means publishers do Z.

Yep, stuff happens, and you can't control any of it. So, the thinking goes, all you can control is your work. 

I agree with that. And I think it's super-important to define what you mean by "work."

Say you submit a piece of writing (or a novel) to a literary journal (or agent) and it's rejected. Okay, you can't control what your target chooses to publish (or represent). Your response is to "keep working hard." But what does "work hard" mean in this context?

* Find another publication (or agent) (or ten, assuming they allow simultaneous submissions) and send your piece (novel) again, without changing anything.

* Do extra research into agents (or publications) and rewrite your cover letter. Tell them you really admire the publication's July issue and note that they're open to experimental forms of narrative, or that the agent has a great track record representing left-handed poetry written by right-handed people

* Look again, with careful eyes, at the piece (or novel) you're submitting. Is it the best you know how to make it? No, really. Maybe it's time to read it again--especially because it's been off your desk for a while (presumably), so you have fresh eyes--and see if it's really finished or if you're just sick of working on it.

* Revise intelligently. What are you trying to do? Find someone else's work that you think does a spectacular job of what you're attempting, and study it. If you admire how a writer conveys who's speaking without using conversation tags, look closely at how she does it--Through word choice? Through a character's tendency to never finish sentences, or talk about anything BUT what's important? Through pairing action with words or perhaps substituting action for words? Whatever you find, try to apply it to your work.

* Read intelligently, doing many of the same things. What is it about this specific title in the cozy mystery (urban literary dystopia) (contemporary family comedy) genre that you enjoy so much? What does this title do that your work doesn't?

* Write something else from scratch. Get out a draft of a different poem or novel. Choose an old short story and revise that instead of working on what was rejected. Finish something new. Send that out.

* Get outdoors and walk someplace. You can be open to a magical breakthrough from the repetitive nature of walking if you want (lots of people seem to advocate that) or you can just go for a walk. Whatever you do out there (or in a pool) will be good for you.

My point is this: any of the activities above can be a reasonable definition of "work" in the phrase, "you can control only how hard you work." Learning how to define "work" in the face of a "no" is part of maturing as a writer. Getting yourself to do what you know you need to do is another sign of maturation (not only in writing). (Or so I've been told.)

My own tendency (as you may have guessed from the boldface above) is to send something out when I'm sick of working on it--or when I'm particularly pleased with a revision and mistake that pleasure for the feeling of "hey, it's done." So I'm always trying to develop my ability to revise earlier and more often. Or at least be OPEN to that idea. 

I can work on it, anyway.

* Not ONLY in the writing world, or even the world of creativity. It's one of those Life Lessons that floats around and is true in lots of situations. For example, you can't control what others think of you, but you can control how you respond to that snarky comment. 
Wednesday, October 19, 2016

More Poetry? Why, Yes

Also at Definitely Superior Art Gallery: an exhibit by Sarah Link and Riaz Mehmood.

(The link above goes to the gallery's exhibits page, so there should be way to find the description for a while, though the exhibit itself closes at the end of October.)

The art combines technology and ceramics in a bunch of interesting ways, and I encourage everyone to visit to experience its several elements.

The part I'm participating in, as one of many poets in Northwestern Ontario, is called Light Poem. In a dark room, a poem is projected briefly onto the back of a screen and then flies into bits. Motion sensors detect the presence or absence of a person in the room--and then whether that person is still or moving.

For the poem to reassemble so you can read it, you have to remain motionless.

It's a fabulous, physical reminder that sometimes the best way to experience life, and art, is through stillness--internal, external, both.

And while it's always awesome and extremely humbling to see my own work out in the world, it's really fun to see any poem assemble itself. Watching the various combinations of letters skitter across a dark screen lets you try to imagine what sort of poem they're from and predict what kind of poem they can become again.

The poems I submitted, like the ones I talked about performing last week, are part of the cache I found from a few summers back.

For the past few years, I've been focused on revising fiction and nonfiction projects, although I guess I have written some new work. But it's also humbling and revelatory to see how long it's been since I sat quietly at a page.

Perhaps it's time for that again.
Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Randomly Poeting

Last Thursday, I put on orange construction coveralls and, as part of a "word construction crew," read some of my work as part of Random Acts of Poetry, a project of Definitely Superior Art Gallery and Artist-Run Centre.

Now in its 12th year, Random Acts of Poetry takes small groups of poets, singer-songwriters, and other spoken-word artists into the community, bringing a moment of reflection and creativity.

See the list above? I'm not a poet, singer-songwriter, or spoken-word artist. I'm prose all the way, baby. I still agreed to participate, because I have a few short pieces of prose, although I find it difficult to keep them short. I figured I'd read one of those.

But I found something surprising in my Dropbox catch-all folder. A few weeks ago, I mentioned the writing equivalent of practicing musical scales. I even wondered about using writing prompts daily as a form of warmup--you know, like scales.

Which is what I found in that folder in Dropbox. Apparently, for a month in the summer of 2014, I borrowed writing prompts and came up with poems. I even named the folder "Poetry." Amazingly, I was proud of several of those pieces. It was fun to read them. A few may be worth saving, while others are definitely worth further "construction."

Plus the whole performance element of last week's event was fun. It was nice to be in random public places--an urban mall, a downtown coffee shop, the LU radio station--and share a creative moment with five fellow crew members and other folks who happened to be there.

I know events like Random Acts of Poetry require planning, coordination, and hard work, and I appreciate all that went into making this year's event possible. Thanks, Definitely Superior!
Wednesday, October 5, 2016


Welcome to October. The birches are in almost-full gold at the moment, but at some point this month, the leaves will swirl away. That's okay, I guess--trees without leaves show more sky and the leaves themselves do all kinds of nice things for plants and dirt and small animals.

October makes it easy--too easy?--to feel wistful about the passing of time. For all the pressing issues in the world these days, though, I wouldn't go back to childhood, not for a bazillion dollars or all the chocolate in the world. October Past had its joys, but I like October Now. (I like All Months Now a quite a bit, in fact.) But I get that some people like yesterday, too.

All of which brings me to "Skeletons," a brief piece of creative nonfiction. It's featured in this month's edition of The Walleye, a local arts and culture magazine. Click here for the page with the electronic issue, and then keep going until you get to page 81.

I hope your October Now is as much fun as, or more than, your Octobers Past.

One of my favo(u)rite reasons to prefer adulthood to childhood is my ability to vote. It's important this election, and I'm pleased to be able to do it.