Literary Pursuits or Lack Thereof

I try to cut myself a break in the summer. It’s natural to slow down a little when the weather is hot and the sun is plentiful. And while I’ve spent plenty of time sitting in the garden and bobbing in the ocean, I’ve also been keeping my hand in the game. Here’s what I’ve accomplished so far this summer:

  • Started a poetry workshop that ran from late June to early August. The next term starts in September. I’m in the early stages of publicizing it.
  • Submitted individual poems to an average of five publications or contests a week and had five pieces accepted. I expect a 20:1 ratio of rejections to acceptances, so this is better than expected. Twenty-one other journals are still reviewing my submissions on Submittable.
  • Sent my manuscript Mad Quick Hand of the Seashore to a few different small presses, some of which were running contests.
  • Published two articles over at Gender Focus. The most recent is an essay about Princess Leia, my first feminist role model. Yes, I like science fiction. Don’t judge me. I’ll repost it here once it’s been up on Gender Focus for a while.
  • Typed and revised at least a few poems.
  • Started the MFA application process. Even though I don’t plan to start a program until summer of 2016, one of the programs I visited asked me to start a file with them now. In spite of my chops, I found filling out the initial application form incredibly daunting. It took me about three weeks to send it in.
  • Finished a review copy of Tawnysha Greene’s gorgeous and devastating new novel A House Made of Stars. I’m in the process of conducting an author interview.

Maybe that’s enough.

 

Ebb and Flow, Walking the Po-Biz Labyrinth

Since I stopped posting drafts of poems to this blog, I find myself writing fewer drafts of poems. The instant gratification of a blog can become addictive, but without a workshop or some other audience — some other incubator of the work– my poetry becomes like a tree falling in a forest. Of course, the squirrels and sparrows and voles are there to hear the tree falling, but they don’t really give very productive feedback. Neither do the random strangers who click “like” when I post an unformed draft.

Going back to Barbara’s workshop would help, and I’ve been taking some baby steps in that direction. I rearranged my schedule so that I might go, but I still need to take the plunge, make the call, set the date that I will return. And figure out how to pay for it.

Photograph of a turf labyrinth
Walking the Po-Biz Labyrinth

Poetry seems like such a slow crawl right now — like that point in a labyrinth when you see the goal in sight, but turn away from it on your journey toward it. It’s not that I’ve been stagnant, it’s just that generating new work has taken a back seat to polishing old work and sending finished work out to journals. Submitting work is strangely exhausting. It gets easier with time, and then again it doesn’t. But I need to trust that there’s no wrong turning, that there’s only the inexorable journey toward the center.

Continue reading “Ebb and Flow, Walking the Po-Biz Labyrinth”

Existential Angst and Taking Writing Seriously

About a week ago Ryan Boudinot published an article in The Stranger called Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One. It’s been making the rounds of the blogosphere, and plenty of people have plenty to say about it. It’s an anti-inspiration article. And it’s helpful to consider it in context. Mr. Boudinot had just emerged from that particular kind of hell only a teacher of creative writing knows. A good teacher has the ability to ferret out the tiniest kernel of good writing, to focus on it, nurture it, and help it bloom. Sometimes the fruit of all that labor is turning a promising writer into an amazing writer. And sometimes it’s just turning a terrible writer into a passable writer. On a good day, this kind of work is its own reward*. But nobody has a good day every day.

And no doubt, it was a massive relief for him to take off that teacher hat and say the things a teacher can never say. Things like:

  • Writers are born with talent.
  • If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.
  • If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.
  • If you aren’t a serious reader, don’t expect anyone to read what you write.
  • No one cares about your problems if you’re a shitty writer.
  • You don’t need my help to get published.

I’ve read some pretty execrable things in my time and thought to myself, “There is no way that I can even begin to help this writer improve.” I once spent hours on an email explaining to a young writer why I wasn’t going to review her book. In fact, I spent longer on that email than I would have on a review that trashed the book, because that book was godawful, and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings by saying, “Your book is godawful. No amount of workshopping will save this book.” I should have just stuck with the form letter, because this godawful writer has written ten more novels than I have, and she’s found a publisher who will print them. And at the end of the day, being a good writer isn’t the thing that gets you published. Ass in chair and persistence is.

I agreed with some of the points in the article, and its snarky tone was rather amusing. But I also knew it was a really horrible thing for me to read. Especially this bit, which really cut me to the quick:

If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.

There are notable exceptions to this rule, Haruki Murakami being one. But for most people, deciding to begin pursuing creative writing in one’s 30s or 40s is probably too late. Being a writer means developing a lifelong intimacy with language. You have to be crazy about books as a kid to establish the neural architecture required to write one.

Inside every writer is that little niggling voice of self-doubt, that little voice that says, “What if I’m just a hack? Why bother? Maybe I should just take up accounting instead.” The difference between a writer and an aspiring writer is the ability to modulate that voice. Harnessed properly, that voice drives me to improve my craft. But left to its own devices, it grows into a monster that prevents me from picking up the pen at all.

Good writing is much harder to quantify than good accounting. It’s the subject of much debate in academic circles, and ultimately it’s a matter of personal taste. You don’t need an MFA to have an opinion about a book, or even to get one published. In fact, you don’t need to be a good writer for your book to sell like hotcakes. You just need to put your ass in your chair, to keep writing, and to find your audience.

Mr. Boudinot never told me I don’t take my writing seriously. He didn’t need to. My own little niggling voice of self-doubt did it for me. Because clearly, if I haven’t published The Great American Novel by now, I must not be taking my writing seriously. Never mind that I’m a poet and not a novelist. Never mind that I’ve been writing steadily since the age of 9, that I was the kind of kid who spent her afternoons in the library after school. Never mind that publication doesn’t necessarily correlate with “taking writing seriously.” If anything, I take writing too seriously. Sometimes I take it so seriously that it paralyzes me. Like so many writers before me, I’ll get ahead of myself and start thinking about my audience instead of focusing on the real reason why any of us write: for that fleeting, perfect moment of having written.

I woke up this morning with my usual fortnightly bout of existential angst. Any writer with her salt knows what I’m talking about. It goes something like this: Why bother trying to be a better poet when so few people even read the stuff? Maybe I should just try to be a fiction writer instead. Maybe I should write a memoir. Maybe I should just give the whole thing up and become an accountant. What on earth am I thinking trying to change careers at this point in my life? Why can’t I just be satisfied with what I have? Why is being a writer so important to me anyway? Am I just a hack? Am I just in denial about being a hack? Does any of this really matter? What is the point of existence? Do I even really exist? And who is this “I” who worries about whether or not I exist?

I can’t blame any of these thoughts — or the resulting angst — on Mr. Boudinot. Experience tells me that they will pass, and that my confidence will return. I’ll keep plugging along with my morning pages and my drafts and my submissions to literary magazines with tiny readerships. And I’ll do it for the best reason I can think of to keep writing: for that fleeting, perfect moment when I think I’m any good at it.



* Which is good, because the monetary rewards aren’t much.

Photo of broken pencil courtesy of Marle Coleman under Creative Commons license.

In Gratitude to Those Who Come to the Garden

This month, the number of people following my blog topped 500. I’d like to express my gratitude to all of you — the people who visit, the people who follow, the people who take the time to comment, to click, and to share. Writing is about communication, not just self-expression — there’s no point in doing it if it’s not reaching anyone. Here’s a Pinterest board I created just for you.

Yin Work in the Summer

Farmers let fields lay fallow. Bears hibernate. Human beings sleep. And artists take a break from creating. I decided to take July and August off from workshops, from submissions, from all the “work” of writing — especially anything to do with shameless self-promotion. I call this doing the yin work.

It was good timing.

This July, I resumed a full-time work schedule. And even though a 40-hour work week can feel like a luxury in this day and age — especially when you work in the tech sector — it’s been a struggle for me to re-acclimate this time. It’s hard to say how much of the struggle has to do with my current state of health (overall, pretty good) and age (if I were a man, I’d be old enough to study the Kabbalah), or if it’s always been this difficult and I just didn’t realize it. I’ve been learning to be kinder to myself, to lower my expectations to be more in line with what most human beings might reasonably be able to accomplish.

Lowering one’s standards can be more difficult than you’d think.

Lowering one’s standards can be more difficult than you’d think. All children grow up thinking that what happens in their families is just the way things are. Their parents teach them by example how to be in the world. I’ll be forever grateful to my mother for the courage it took her to leave an abusive marriage with two kids in tow, and then to raise them without a dime of child support. But it does mean that I grew up thinking that stretching myself to the very limits of my own abilities — and often beyond them — is just par for the course.

This expectation enabled me to survive a difficult childhood, excel in school, win a scholarship to a fancy liberal-arts college, and eventually stumble into a field lucrative enough for me to move to a home in the metro Boston area that has birds and trees outside. But — as my nurse boyfriend tells me on the regular — the maladaptive coping techniques that worked for me then don’t necessarily work for me today. Expecting myself to hold down a full-time job AND become a Successful Writer TM AND keep from ruining my health again might just possibly be unrealistic. Which makes me feel a little better that I haven’t been able to keep all three of those balls in the air for the past couple of decades.

The return to full-time work chafes especially hard because M and I are in the process of executing Project Okelle Career Change. This plan might sound familiar to anyone who lived through the irrational exuberance of the 1990s. If increasing shareholder value in Okelle, Inc. were my only motivation though, I’d stay in my cushy corporate office job until (hopefully) I retire or (more likely) they kick me out the door during the next big re-org. But while I enjoy living in a pleasant place, eating food other people cook for me, having health insurance, and keeping my creditors happy, money cannot be the only reason I work.

Parts of me are terrified at the idea of upsetting the status quo — and given the rollercoaster of last winter and the slow road to recovery that followed, I can understand their concern. Parts of me are less than thrilled about all the things that buying a home symbolize: loss of youth, loss of hip-ness, initiation into the Top Seekrit Club for Middle-Aged People Who Know about Stuff Like Fixed-Rate Mortgages. And hiding deep behind all of those tiny Okelles is the anguished artist who’s been wanting so badly to pursue her dreams, but is also terrified of achieving  them.

No matter how I succeed, it won’t be as good as my fantasies of success.

My inner artist is terrified of what might happen if I do, in fact, throw all caution and pragmatism to the wind, follow the bliss instead of the money, make sacrifices, go without, eat rice and beans, claw myself to the top of the caterpillar pile, and end up with an expensive piece of paper, another three decades of student loan payments, middling success as a professional writer (for a given definition of success), and an unfulfilling job that pays less than the one I had before. No matter what I do, I doubt I’m going to achieve the aura of fantasy-fulfillment that has been surrounding the idea of being a professional writer for me since age 10. Existential angst is a fact of existence. Nothing will change that, not even the Nobel Prize. Especially not the Nobel Prize, according to Doris Lessing.

Whenever the possibility of my fulfilling this dream occurs to me, I find myself tearing up. The energy behind those tears is deep and complex. I’m not sure I’ll ever unpack it. I’m also not sure that I need to before I start walking toward the thing I fear. Fear is an old companion, one who rises to swamp my boat when I run from it, and who bouys me when I steer into it. As a way of working with this particular snarl of fears, hope, grief, and resentment I’ve begun reading Pema Chödron’s book The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times. She talks a lot about being a warrior in this book, which is comforting since I’ve always wanted to be a warrior but never wanted to bother with military service or, you know, actual fighting. The warrior she describes, though, reminds me of the internal jihad Muslim teachers talk about: the warrior who is courageous enough to run toward the dangerous, frightening places within, and who chooses to allow pain and fear make her flexible rather than more rigid. This passage in particular spoke to me:

The irony is that what we most want to avoid in our lives is crucial to awakening bodhichitta. These juicy emotional spots are where a warrior gains wisdom and compassion. Of course, we’ll want to get out of those spots far more often than we’ll want to stay. That’s why self-compassion and courage are vital. Staying with pain without loving-kindness is just warfare.

“How to stay with your own pain in loving-kindness” was not on the core curriculum of the public schools when I was growing up, but then again neither was “how to start your own business,” or “how to pay off a massive amount of debt,” or “how to be a queer woman in a straight man’s world.” I’ve been able to bungle my way through the rest of those lessons. School was pretty easy by comparison, really. You memorize the Pythagorean theorem, regurgitate it for the test, and get on with your life. The constant practice of being a grown-up, however, can be much more difficult. As can reminding yourself that yin work is a necessity, not a luxury. Any artist will tell you so.

 

 

 

 

November: National Guilt Month

Fallen leaves against grass and asphalt
The colors of November always surprise me — fading glory, but still glorious.

November is many things: my least favorite month of the year, one long sugar hangover between Halloween and Thanksgiving, the void into which the long evenings of autumn light become the sudden dusk of winter nights. It’s Movember, when men, women, and cars sprout moustaches to remind us that men should have shower cards too. It’s National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo for those of us too hip to pronounce entire words). It’s Grateful November. In 2010, it was my own NaPoWriMo for about four days.

All of these 30-day, month-long commitments, all of these mutually supported do-good movements are great. They’re wonderful. They’re a sign of the in-gathering that is winter in the northern hemisphere: after the expansive summer and the exhausting harvest, the drawing together of the tribe around the fire to tell stories and… tweet about how many words they’ve written.

And for a perfectionist like me, they can also be a huge set-up for over-commitment and failure. Historically, November has been the worst month for me to do just about anything but plod along and show up day by day. The body knows this very well, but the mind forgets on a regular basis.

So this November, I resolve to do everything imperfectly. I will get my ass out of bed on a daily basis — imperfectly. I will express gratitude imperfectly, sometimes with mere gestures and sometimes with more sincerity. I will write haiku and journal imperfectly. I will update this blog imperfectly–perhaps weekly, perhaps less. I will join in the Dverse Poets community when it’s reasonable for me to do so, not each and every week, no matter how many times my calendar reminds me to.

I will conduct the next two sessions of my writing workshop imperfectly, doing my best to inspire and be inspired, enjoying the unfolding relationships developing among us all– and feeling lucky to be teaching writing, something so near and so dear and so close to my heart.

Imperfectly, I will accept the blessings and the gifts each day has to give me. And I will forgive myself for my own imperfections, give myself as many breaks and second chances as I need, and relax about whether I’m doing my imperfect November as imperfectly as I would like.

Toni Amato is Right, As Usual

The new writing group met last night for the first time. I’ve done my best to appear confident about this new venture, but anyone who knows me well knows the turmoil of the waters beneath the placid surface. Facilitating workshops is not new to me — I’ve done it in various venues and for various years for more than 20 years — but this particular project lies quite close to my heart. Fear of failure and fear of success dogged my steps in the months leading up to its opening.

I feel particularly grateful for the love and support of my two teachers: Toni, who first challenged me to consider the possibility of starting a workshop similar to his, but on the opposite side of the Boston hub. He’s provided support both practical and spiritual — and will no doubt continue to as my own confidence waxes and wanes. And Barbara, whose workshop sparked the necessity of finding a place to generate new stones to polish and polish under her guidance. She said to me, “My first workshop was two friends who were there for free, and one person who paid $40.” That was 30 years ago, and 125 books and countless journal publications have emerged from her workshop since.

This time last week, I was reciting a litany of fears to Toni, and he responded — as he often does — that the universe would give me just what I needed, moment by moment. Last night, that was a small group which merged effortlessly. And a group decision to focus on generating works of poetry, the form I am concentrating on myself.  In three hours we worked four different prompts, and by the end of the evening we felt expansive and full of possibilities.

We meet again in two weeks, when two more new members will join us. We have space for a few more, but whether the group stays small or expands to capacity, I’m sure the universe will provide just what is needed.