Lookin’ at you, fledgling little habit

Well, February is staring at us, Kilroy-was-here-style, and I’m happy to report that January has been productive.

I can’t say I’ve totally followed my own advice about goals in the new year (on January 4 I wrote a post about habits and goals), but the nugget of advice that I’ve tried to implement is breaking down my work into small tasks. When I made that post, I’d envisioned it would look something like early morning childcare, then teaching and grading work, then some me time (maybe even on the treadmill!) and then some time for blogging. I’d take a lunch break, then do some other writing– reviews, manuscript work, freelance work, things like that. Maybe I’d have more time for me and time for reading in the afternoon and evening. Maybe. Have you ever raised a toddler? Yikes.

But we all know that good plans deserve, nay, invite, serious challenges. My dog had surgery, and caring for a sick pup who becomes a pup with an unzipped belly requires a lot of emotional energy.

While I was working through my fears and sorrows, however, I managed to make small strides forward in manuscript work, namely, searching for agents. Using QueryTracker, this month I’ve compiled a list of 30 or so agents who want the type material I have to offer: memoir with a strong voice, punchy characters, a compelling plot and literary treatment of the work. I’ve spent time crafting a good one-liner about the book, a succinct overview, an engaging author bio and a letter unique to each agent I’m querying. This is almost as much work as raising my toddler. Almost.

What this activity has meant, in terms of breaking my work into small tasks, is that I pretty much broke off all other non-necessary work. No blogging. No story pitches to magazines or other publications. Just a little bit of review work.

So I don’t think I can say I’ve completely followed my own advice, but I can say I see the first tendrils of a new habit forming. Additionally, the puppers is on the mend, and an agent has responded, asking for the first few chapters.

Onward!

How are your New Year’s goals coming along? Not a goal maker? Cool. How’s your 2021 workload?

Header image photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kilroy_was_here.svg

Punch up, not down

Ahh, the semester is wrapping up and I’m reclaiming minutes of the day for myself. Instead of just doomscrolling, which is such a nice way to procrastinate, I’ve been using these minutes to squeeze in some writing and reading. Having minutes of time to myself doesn’t often feel like enough to get into a new piece of writing or engage in a substantial way with a book, but right now, I’m so elated to have these snippets of time I feel supercharged by them. And in just about two weeks, I’ll be off for Christmas break and basking in the glow of hours for myself. HOURS! I may just reach my goal of getting my memoir ready to send out to editors and agents by the end of the year.

To warm up for a few weeks of reading and writing (and revision) time, I recently participated in a writing workshop with Faith Adiele. (I found out about her workshop while doomscrolling, so I guess that act isn’t all bad.) We explored memoir and various strategies for writing it, and as an incredibly humorous person, Faith wove laughter and mirth and levity into everything we worked with, including our writing prompts. For one, she asked us to write an anti-hero piece about breaking New Year’s resolutions and not feeling bad about it. I don’t often like writing prompts, but in a workshop they are part of what one does. THERE, I can appreciate them. So for this particular exercise, I took Faith’s prompt and tweaked it. Channeling Colin Nissan’s, “It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers,”I wrote an anti-hero piece about this break I’ll soon be enjoying:

2021 is going to be the best year yet. I’m going to kick it off in California, saltwater splashing in my face on a crab boat while my husband barfs over the edges. I’m not going to feel sorry for him either—fuck that asshole and his smug, always-better-than-anyone-at-everything demeanor.  I’ll let him be better than me at barfing, just this once. I’m going to drop crab pots while he languishes, wet and miserable, in a corner of the boat. I would rather be in Colombia for the new year, somewhere tropical and warm, not the wet-curtain wrapped around me always that is northern California. So I’ll be miserable too, probably, surrounded by his family for three weeks, but in my resolution to have fun on that crab boat if it kills me, I will not think about Colombia, at least not much. I won’t think about how warm I could be, how dry and sunbaked and sleepy. Instead, I’ll get the most crabs in my crab  baskets, the big fat meaty ones everyone wants, and I’ll shuck those bastards faster than his sisters can say “screaming match.”  I’ll eat until I’m the one ready to barf over the edge of the table, into my brother-in-law’s thousand dollar boots, and I’m going to enjoy that feeling of excess and oblivion.  I might be crabby and out of sorts for the  first week of the new year, the last week we’ll be in California, but I’m going to feel real emotions, man, none of the fluffed up hallmark Christmas shit that I’ll have been watching for three weeks while stewing in the sog of silent treatment.

Faith broke us into small groups to discuss our short writings, and my group mates got a good chuckle out the anti-hero piece. It was fun to write, and as is all good writing, hinged on small truths. I laughed about it as I read it, but I also knew there was too much snark in it, that the hits were a little to hard to come off as humor and not hatred. So I asked Faith for advice on writing humor, and she said, “Always punch up, not down.”

Don’t pick on people lesser than you, don’t throw down on someone who can’t dish it back, is the way I understood her advice. I liked this advice, and although I don’t write much humor, it seemed like good advice to use at any time when writing about difficult events in memoir. It also seemed like good advice for staying sane while finishing the semester and making time for myself.

I may not have a lot of time to write or read right now, put punching at myself while I’m bogged down isn’t going to accomplish anything. Punch up, indeed.

Contesting the norm

It’s one of my favorite times of the year: The submission period for the Southern New Hampshire Fall Fiction Contest has closed and I get to read several of the outstanding semi-final entries.

This year we had 560 submissions. The forty that I’ve read this week are among the best I’ve read in my three years of judging, and I just finished reading a story about a clever high schooler who comes up with a unique way to ask out a girl he likes. This may sound like an age-old story, and of course, it is. But the boy’s tactic, the girl’s motivations for being the way she is and catching his attention: all crisp and unique.

Another writer submitted a piece of metafiction in which the narrator/protagonist is vying for an appointment to speak with the omniscient narrator. Fun idea, and the setting was so sharp that I felt like a fly on the wall in the waiting room.

There have been other good submissions–anthropomorphism cast in a new and fun way, coming-of-age pieces that speak to what today’s youth are experiencing, and a few explorations of addiction, depression and despair. And wow, perhaps the best part is that there have been a BUNCH of stories featuring LGBTQ+ characters, as well as more POC–that’s Protagonist of Color in this context–than I’ve read in the past three years.

I don’t know how many of my submissions come from students and how many come from the general public, but seeing these demographics represented in a noticeable and strong way is amazing. I don’t know if literature as a whole is changing (this is just one small drop in the pond, right?), but this is exciting.

What’s also been totally delightful and yet downright harrowing is the way Covid and politics have shown up across these texts. I know many people are writing about these things right now, and I see many calls for submission on both topics. They are important, but I have not been all that interested in writing about them–or reading about them.

When I read fiction for pleasure, I want to forget about what I’m living, not see how well it’s mirrored or torn down in a story. But I know that writing about what we experience is part of processing it, and through the stories I’ve read this week, I get a sense of joy in seeing how students are tackling these topics, all of them. I love seeing the black character who’s going to Harvard or the queer character whose gender we never learn because it doesn’t matter. I love the trans character whose grandma stands up for her. These characters and plots and conclusions give me a sense of hope about the future. They help me see how these writers are taking what we’re dealing with it and processing it from their own perspectives.

They are crafting more than just a fictionalized future for our country in a post-Covid and post-Trump world, but a literary future that breaks genres and tropes while exploring what it means to be part of something. No matter what it’s about, who writes it and who is featured in it, that’s what the best fiction does.

What new writers are you finding? How are they helping you through these times?

Death and creation

“Why do we tell stories?”

It’s a question I ask in every course I teach, and it always has a different answer. This is something I expect, as all students come to the idea of story with different experiences and perceptions. But the answers differ based on the class in which I ask the question.

Take my lit class, for example. After students offer their suggestions (suggestions such as “to entertain,” “to share ideas,” “to express emotion,” etc.), I tell them we tell stories simply to convey something that happened. Their answers aren’t wrong, but that’s the “why” I’m looking for in that class, at least at the outset of the class, when I first ask this question.

In a creative writing class, because my students are there to be writers, not just readers of others’ stories, their answers are a little more personal and nuanced.

“I tell stories because I would die if I didn’t,” someone says. “Because I have all these worlds and characters in my head and I have to do something with them,” is another answer. For them, storytelling is an emotional, personal, life-giving event. These students are like Joan Didion, who wrote in 1979 that we “tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Sometimes even my Composition students see the writing they are doing (basic academic structure writing) as a chance to find meaning in something they already know about. A student once wrote an essay about why America should allow the consumption of horse meat, and although he went into that topic knowing something about it and having opinions about it, in an end-of-semester reflection piece, he wrote that he had learned something new about himself as he researched his topic. He said he’d never be able to eat a dog, although some people do, and as he pondered this line of thought, he was able to see why most people couldn’t get behind eating horse meat. He got there, of course, by including a personal anecdote, a story.

The art and craft of storytelling is on my mind at least in some way every day. Lately, it’s been on my mind because in September two stray cats showed up at our farm, and last week they died. Well, what I know for sure is that last week one of them died, because I found him in the midst of dying, after both cats had been missing for a few days. I haven’t seen the other one in a week, and given what happened, I’m sure she’s dead too. These cats bring story to mind because of how they worked themselves into my farm life existence, because of how they gave me something to talk about with others and because of they way they brought up memories of the cats of my childhood. I told them stories when I talked to them, and my son told me stories about them. Pumpkin patch visitors told us how much they enjoyed seeing the kitties, and petting the calico, the friendly one. And when I took the poor gray striped kitty to the vet, the one I found on his last day, I told her his story, of how he’d come to my farm, how he’d been so skittish and had just finally started letting me pick him up. It was a short story; he’d only been around for a month and a half, but it was his story, or what I knew of it. As she euthanized him and he fell asleep one last time, snuggled in my arms, I sobbed and sobbed, remembering that farm life is so hard on cats. In the days since, I’ve sniffled and sobbed a few more times, thinking about how hard farm life is on me, too. Those dang kitties had become my friends, other living beings to interact with in a time of isolation and loneliness.

When I sat down to write about this, I thought I’d write more about the kitties, tell more of their story here and let them live on in the pixels and electricity of the screen. But storytelling is a funny thing. On the one hand, writers who do this work for a living know they can’t wait for inspiration to write; they can’t wait for that shadow of a cat that is story to come forward from the bushes and rub briefly on a leg before darting away again. They must write, doing what they can to bring forward the slightest wisp of a story. On the other hand, some stories need time to grow and be known. If we tell stories to live, we must do some living in order to understand how events shape us and others. With that living comes the passing of time, the sorting of feelings and the ability to know something new and different.

I can’t write about these kitties yet, although I want to. I don’t know what to say about them, or if there’s anything there that really matters. But what I have learned through having and then losing them is just how lonely life out here really is. And through that realization, I’ve remembered that in loneliness, and in the craft of story, we can still find ways to live.

Yellow, orange and green squash and pumpkins of all sizes.

A quiet revolution

As an adolescent, I couldn’t wait to get off the farm. When I finally did, for college, I found that living in the city was as good as I had imagined it would be. I had access to people, unique ideas and things to do. In fact, city living was maybe even better than what I’d seen on TV or while traveling because my college campus was its own little residential community. There was some shelter in the secure life of a student living on a quiet campus, and the city that I moved to was easy to get around and relatively small, maybe 100,000 people at that time. It was a good first step toward city life and a definite first step toward being the writer I wanted to be, as I was studying journalism. It also gave me things to write about, first for the school newspaper and then the city daily.

Three years later, when I moved to Washington, D.C., the jump in size meant a jump in congestion and disorientation. But there too, I got some of the things I’d grown up longing for while watching MTV: access to bookstores, live music any night of the week (not something I had in Sioux Falls), late night dinners and more access to people and things to do. That time period didn’t exactly shape my writing, but it did give me a few things to write about later on, and it showed me that I preferred print to broadcast journalism. I also saw that the political game was really just a game, not a lifestyle I wanted to actually be part of.

I’ve been thinking of that time in D. C. lately, as the election nears, as I move further and further away from journalism, and as I settle into what it means to be a writer on a farm, rather than in a city (it means I don’t get out and see other writers much, for one). I’m teaching college students now, and in one of my classes we explore the literature of revolution. This means we look at war and politics, yes. But also we look at what makes writing revolutionary. We discuss whether or not one has to be an activist to be a revolutionary figure, or if one can do something as simple as write a poem, or a song, or paint a picture. Does a writer have to write about conflict to write revolutionary things, or can love be revolutionary? Work?

Can the change of colors in the sky or horizon lead to revolution?

In my other classes, creative writing classes, not lit classes, I help novice writers think about craft and their writing process. I ask them if they really understand their characters’ motivations and if they can tie the to the plot or the setting more closely. I ask them to consider the figurative language they use and why they use it. I ask them, “If you never make it as a writer, what will you do?”

As this semester moves toward its own falling action, I think back to the week before the election when I lived in D.C. The city was awash with potential, and my friends, Republicans and Democrats, or some variation of each, were on edge for their respective candidates. My room mates and I threw a watch party that night to see the votes come in, and my guy lost. But my biggest conflict was whether or not I wanted to stay in the city when my internship was over. There was so much to like about it, but nothing that would keep me writing, or put me into a position where writing became my work.

We’re approaching another election now, sixteen years later (what?!), and as I look out my farmhouse window onto a scene of blinding snow speckled red and gold with fallen maple leaves, I feel a sense of the cyclical nature of time. It’s something my students and I talk about as we read Marquez, but it’s not just my work life that prompts it. I’m back on a farm, after all, back in the same sort of existence where my dreams of being a big shot writer began. I don’t really dream those dreams any more, at least not in the same way. And I’ve found that contrary to the idea of space and quiet = lots of writing, I don’t write much anymore, either.

My most prolific time as a writer was in another city, in Chicago, a decade ago. But as I sit in my dining room, surrounded by squash and the final harvests of our fall, I see that if I am to be a writer now, it means writing about what surrounds me. Nothing revolutionary there– I’ve always drawn on my surroundings for fodder. Writers do that. But I’ve resisted writing about this life, the farm life, here in my blog. My blog has always been a place where I could write about the exciting cities I lived in and the exciting things I did. But that’s no longer where I’m at, or what I do. I don’t want to write about the Midwest, or farm culture, or what I’m doing back where I began. But I guess if I am to be a writer, then maybe it’s time to just settle in and find inspiration in the quiet and color around me.

 

 

 

Seeing each other

Photo cred to my honey, Sean.

May 1. Finally.

After a tough semester, wherein I started out with 122 students in four composition I and II classes, I am finally done grading. I am done with submitting grades. I am done with students…at least until May 6, when my next term starts. It is a small break, but a good one, and it will allow me to send out some submissions I’d neglected in April.

I had hoped to do more writing last month but had to put my goals aside to focus on my students. One of the things I DID accomplish for myself last month was submitting a poem and a picture of my eyes to a project put together by Yoko Ono.

The exhibition is part of a project called “Growing Freedom, the art of John and Yoko.” It features music, written word, images, and I think even more interactive events like yoga and talks. It’s been featured in Iceland and Germany so far, and went up in Montreal on April 25. According to Yoko’s call for submissions, it will continue to make its way around the world.


THE INSTALLATION ARISING WILL CONTINUE TO GROW
AND WILL BE EXHIBITED IN MANY COUNTRIES.

I VERY MUCH HOPE FOR YOUR PARTICIPATION.

– Yoko Ono


Focused on giving women a chance to share “a testament of harm done to you for being a woman,” it sounds like such an interesting way to draw audience participation and raise awareness about a current topic in a new way.

My understanding is that anyone who submits material will have their writing and photo added to the installation. Today I received an email confirming they’d received my work and thanking me for “participating” in the exhibition. I think that means I’m in, but I replied and asked if they could confirm that my submission had been added and maybe even take a picture for me.

If you’d like to submit to the exhibition, you’ll find instructions in the link I shared to the exhibition.

If I hear back, I’ll post an update with the picture. If not, I’ll post an update about the project. Or, if you’d like to learn more, check it out!

The push to publish

Taking a look at old poems.

I don’t work for an institution that requires me to publish work as part of my role there, but as a student of such places, I believe it is important to actively work toward publication. Publication offers a sense of accomplishment and pride in one’s work, and it also shows others that one knows a thing or two about writing. As a writer in general, I feel like I do enough publishing with my freelance work to feel “validated” as a professional writer. However, getting my creative work out to a wider audience has value in other ways. For one, it gives my students a chance to see the kind of work I do. It also might inspire random readers.

But finding time to write and then shop my creative work around is difficult. And it can be frustrating to receive three rejections in a row. But last year I was at a writing conference, and one of the presenters told participants that she aims to get 100 rejections a year. Out of that number, she said, surely there will be a few acceptance letters!

I appreciated her insight, but I didn’t do anything with that push until the end of the year. I just didn’t have time. Really, what I mean is I didn’t have the energy. But over Christmas break, I sent work out to five places. I’ve heard back from two with rejections. I’ve reached out to one with a friendly, “hey, have you looked at my work, it’s been four months), and I’ve had two pieces placed in an anthology (more on that later!).

These small successes have pushed me to keep up with publishing efforts this year, and I’ve been working on new pieces, tweaking old pieces and writing cover letters. It’s only Monday as I write this, and I’ve already submitted work to a journal and have cover letters ready to go for two others.

Sometimes inspiration strikes, and the writer jams out 1000 words. Most of the time though, writing is a deliberate, slow act. I find that as long as I think of the publishing process in the same way, as a slow, deliberate act, it somehow feels less daunting.

Here’s to 100 rejections in 2019!