Monday, March 27, 2017

Publishing books is a long-term commitment



After years of serving as editor-in-chief of a major literary journal, and quite successfully, I had an idea: Why not start a press?

Everything was in place to make the idea work. I had a partner who was motivated and smart; we had a capable staff; we had contacts; we had the necessary skills and technology and know-how in all areas of production.

While I could stand in the middle of the magazine office and look around and see everything needed to make a book, what I couldn’t envision clearly enough was an effective way to get books into the hands of readers. This gave me pause—and considerations like these are the reason I never went into book publishing.

Committing to publish books is so very different from committing to publish a magazine. My first-ever publication was with a now-defunct journal called Farmers Market. I loved that magazine, and I treasure my copy of it. Recently I talked with an old friend of mine, and she said that this journal printed her first poem, too. This is a friend I really resonate with, and our Farmers Market connection felt pretty profound.

When a terrific little journal goes away, people like my friend and I can look back on it with fondness. We remember that magazine, and the good work inside, and the care they took with our work, and we feel nothing but warmth. The world was a nicer place with this journal in it.

But when a press goes away, things are much trickier. Journals are supposed to be temporary—the word comes from the Latin diurnus, meaning “of the day” (think “diurnal”) via the French adjective journal, “daily” (as in the soup “du jour”). It’s OK if something so temporary goes out of regular production and out of print. 

When a press goes under, its books can disappear, too. Books, though, are meant to be permanent. When we love a writer, we want to read everything that writer has ever produced, and it’s very frustrating when we can’t get our hands or our eyes on any single part of that collection. A book is an enduring record of a period in a literary artist’s creative life.

Mind you, there is never any reason in an age of digital publishing and print on demand for a book to become unavailable. A responsible publisher takes care to ensure that a press’s catalog goes on after the press or anyone on its staff is gone. One lovely option happens when another press takes over the catalog of one that is going out of business. Since a defunct press has no potential for profit, there are many examples of presses taking over a publisher’s list at no cost. Small press publishers tend to be in their field for love of literature, and making sure the books endure are the foremost concern of the average publisher who is discontinuing that holy work.

I ultimately chose not to become a publisher, but not because I didn’t believe I had it in me to promote new books, distribute them broadly, and fulfill orders efficiently. My sticking point was that after a thorough gut-check, I couldn’t honestly say that I was interested in entering into publishing for the long haul. And one must.

The fact is that it’s somewhat easier to publish a magazine than it is to publish books. To do it justice, every book contract includes a tacit (or possibly an overt) expectation that press releases will go out and media interviews will be sought; advance review copies will go to the major reviewers and to select minor reviewers with plenty of lead time; the release day will include a social media splash. An excellent distributor will be brought in to get books in stores; in addition, local bookstores will be contacted and readings or release parties will be set up. 

Magazines are released to subscribers and via distribution to bookstores. Often there is a system in place to get into local bookstores by consignment or to notify media via press releases of each new issue. My magazine always found most of its readers at the annual AWP Conference, where it was eagerly snatched up—and bullishly offered to those who tried to pass it by. But that’s it. That’s a journal’s commitment to its authors. An issue’s release should include a pause for celebration—unlike a book’s release, which is a huge occasion.


Because I wasn’t willing to devote my life to a press, I didn’t. And this was the right decision. Sure, there are ways that a responsible publisher can allow for a smooth transition if things happen to fall apart. But without that drive to promote and sustain each book, I had no business entering the field. And that’s why I’ve never regretted my decision to stick to magazines.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

A Writers' Spirit: Risk and return with language



Language has value. It has been the source of most things of value in my life, and I lean hard on it to help me make meaning and memories and to give something of value to the world.

Language is a vehicle that conveys meaning from a source to an audience. It’s part of a circulatory system; we send it out and we anticipate a response. Most of the pain I’ve known in my life has come from a breakdown of that circulatory system—that river. My “I love you” has been unreturned; my “Goodbye” served as a terminus for the flow; my inability to say “Goodbye” left me parched and wanting.

I have several defined roles in the world, outside of home and family, and these all have language as their core. I teach composition to college students. I do freelance writing and editing for all kinds of people, literary and otherwise. I blog, obviously. And I score standardized writing tests. 

I love language; it’s the most stalwart, constant thing in my life. And I get along with it. Most of the time, it pretty much does what I ask it to, and in return, I frequently set aside time to do what it tells me to do. Sometimes I just have to trust it, but when I do—when I’m wise—it comes bearing gifts. I can read what I’ve written and find surprises inside—beauty in its structures, meaning beneath its surface.

But I don’t think you have to love language for it to operate in this holy way—part mirror, part gazing globe, part oracle.

The fact is, we all lean on the sacred staff of language sometimes. We take a knee, a ring pinched between our fingers; we stand up to be counted or to testify. We sing or we pray or we ask for a raise. We breathe simple syllables toward a baby. We whisper goodbye into the whorls of an ear. 

Sometimes words are just what we need. We’ve all seen the struggle of a couple’s friend to offer the perfect wedding toast, or of a son or daughter who has one shot to sum up the life of a loved one in a eulogy. There are songs common to these occasions, and some are chosen for their words—their perfect words, it seems to the chooser. I know few people of a Christian faith who don’t respond on a cellular level to the lyrics of “Amazing Grace,” and that’s true for me, too, even though I have some deep theological issues with the song. (“Wretch?” Nah. Not me.)

I think of language as a means of exchange, almost exactly like money, an enduring poetic topic for me. Money holds steady unless we pass it along through investment or, to a lesser extent, through banking, which offers interest payments. We see ourselves as depleting money through spending it, but really, we get products or services we desire, and that’s just the money in a different form. The most useless thing we can do with money is keep it in our pocket, where it doesn’t work for us and it doesn’t grow.

Language is like that. We have to risk it for return—and writers take this risk all the time. But you don’t have to be a writer to understand risk and return. Put yourself in high school; just try to procure that prom date without language. You could avoid the risk, but that means staying home in your sweat pants on the big night. A proposal (or a response to it) is a function of language. So is an interview. These are the risks most of us come to know.

I always remind myself that being a writer—having an intimate relationship with language—gives me power that some just don’t have. I’m fortunate in that way, but I remind myself that all power is to be used with generosity and love. I’m not one to mock a misspelling on a menu, for instance, because I’m a terrible cook, and I take pleasure and relief from the fact that someone else has a handle on it. I know many writers who glory in others’ errors. I am not above a good laugh at a goof—spelling “tap” with two Ps, say—when the error goes hand in hand with a larger ugliness or evil. I don’t think this tendency speaks well of me, though. An intentionally or carelessly false accusation is an evil act; mockery of the spelling of the accusation is a wrong.

When I teach students, I have no trouble approaching language with love. Their best attempts aren’t always successful, but there is always success in them somewhere. It’s an honor to help them get insight into their words and find a better way to arrange them.

When I edit, I channel the writer and try to help the work to reflect the writer even better. Grammar and mechanics take a back seat to voice sometimes in a creative work, and when I correct these errors, I find a new way to say the words with the same personality shining through.

When I score standardized tests, I focus on rewarding the good instead of penalizing the bad. These, in fact, are the instructions under which I operate—one of the only kindnesses in the whole endeavor.

In the past week, I’ve witnessed a situation that has hurt a lot of people who love words as much as I do. The closure of a press has left several books abandoned before ever being published, and others orphaned with the prospect of being out of print at the end of the year. Everyone who was involved with the press on either side—writer or editor—is feeling real pain.


I wonder what words, if any, can help the wordsmiths? I think they need to be gentle, humble ones. Risk doesn’t always pay off, but there is much grace in the effort.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern Would Like to Brace You for Impending Disappointment

Note: Do you rely on a digital reader? Complete readable text may be found in the first comment following this post.

Hello,

Listen, you’re going to get some distressing news about your three-year-old submission to McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern in roughly a day or two. We at McSweeney’s would like for you to prepare yourself for the worst—not death-type worst, but the worst thing that can happen to a writer’s submission, barring, say, outright theft and loss of movie rights for a story that becomes the next Avatar or Gone With the Wind or Disney blockbuster animated feature.

The news is not good. If you take statins to lower your cholesterol, we advise you to double up. The next time you check your e-mail, please make sure you are seated away from blunt or sharp edges.

Sincerely,

The Editors
McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern

***
Hello,

Are you OK? This is a test. Had this been your actual bad-news correspondence from McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, it would have included some rather rough news about your submission. That’s coming, and we’d like for you to be prepared.

Sincerely,

The Editors
McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern

***

Hello,

How about if you go fetch a cup of tea, maybe prop your feet up, then go on ahead and open your e-mail again in four to seven minutes.

Sincerely,

The Editors
McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern

***


***


***


***

Hello,

Oops. Just realized that nowhere in our multipart rejection series did we actually alert you to the sad truth that your work was, in fact, being rejected. To be clear, when we said, "We are clearing the deck," what we meant to say was, "Nope."

Sincerely, 

The Editors
McSweeney's Quarterly Concern

***

Hello,

We at McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern are, as our name implies, concerned. We would like you to know that we value you as a human, and that the world is a slightly better place because you are in it, sending submissions into the ether and waiting, with ever-diminishing hopefulness, for a response. We’re feeling kind of bad about that rejection we sent, or rather, that small series of rejections. Are you OK?

Sincerely,

The Editors
McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern

***

Hello,

It has come to our attention that some consider a wholesale rejection of every submission (with a request to resubmit the same material) to be a poor procedure for dealing with a publication’s submissions backlog. We’re not sure why this didn’t occur to us, but we’ve been informed that we might instead have sent a respectful, ordinary rejection in just one iteration, instead of several. In fact, some experienced editors from other publications have suggested that we could have read, even skimmed, the submissions as an act of good faith, or that any number of grad students would have loved to serve as interns, even temporarily. Heck, a team of interns could have attacked our submissions and knocked them out in a week in exchange for pizza and beer or tasteful literary tattoos.

What we’re hearing is that there may have been a better way. It’s a notion we thought we’d toss your way, see what you think.

Sincerely,

The Editors
McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern

*** 

Hello,

Something else has come to our attention, and it is the fact that most people who submitted to us over the past three years probably have new work, better work, that they could send our way. Maybe requesting the resubmission of work that hasn’t found another home in the past 1,095 days is not the optimal way for us to get our hands on the best new writing. We’re confused on this point, and we wondered what you thought. Fact is, we’re starting to feel a certain comity, or maybe even a friendly acquaintanceship, with you. We were so close to your writing—the very best you had to offer of yourself, woven of hope and invention—and we think it grew on us in a very subtle way, despite the fact that we didn’t actually look at it. Please write back. We miss you.

Sincerely,

The Editors
McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern

***

Hello,

Uh-oh. Some people have noticed the excuses we slipped into our series of rejection letters. We tried to blame our long response time, and our ultimate lack of consideration, on our small staff. We’ve been made aware that a lot of journals have even smaller staffs and less money than we do. We could even list some of those journals, but, you know—the list is really long. Just take our word for it. Some of the best magazines out there have similarly sized staffs.

We’re starting to think we were just careless with writers’ work—again, the very best part of them, submitted with a great deal of trust and good faith. We’re starting to think this isn’t funny.

I think it’s safe to say that we’re starting to feel kind of sorry.

Sincerely,

The Editors
McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern

***

Hello,

We’ve been informed that our brand is known for its archness and its love of parody, and some have even suggested that our unconventional (or, to quote our detractors, our “irresponsible,” or “impersonal,” or “cold,” or “ridiculous”) multiple-form rejection might open us up to the same kind of treatment we love to dole out. Funny thing about satire. It only works when the satirist herself is beyond any real reproach. At any rate, we can dish it up, so we’re sure we can take it.

Still, if you’d put in a good word for us with random bloggers, we’d be grateful. Just tell them they ought to go back to talking about the great pen-versus-keyboard controversy, or the role of meditation in writing, or, really, anything about their cat, loosely linked to the topic of writing. People love that shit.

Tell them we’ll do better. You can tell from our series of notes we mean it; we just exercised some poor judgment, and someone told us that everyone deserves a little slack from time to time. This looks bad, though. We know this looks very bad.

Sincerely,

The Editors

McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern

Public readings: They're not about the reader

Why give readings?

Poets and other writers give readings mainly because they’re trying to sell books. Audience members attend readings to be moved and entertained—and if all goes well, they might buy a book.

But readings are a vehicle for community. We come together to have a common experience with words. The reader provides this experience, but a reader with books to hawk is not entirely the reason for the experience. Witness those regular reading series, where all of the same audience members show up on the second Tuesday or third Thursday to hear whomever comes out to read.

My first full-length collection is almost a year old, and it has given me many opportunities to share my work with audiences. I can say, candidly, that I’ve had mixed results. All of my readings have done the job, but some have been especially successful. It’s interesting to consider why that may be.

The fact is, I’m trying to become a better reader of my own work, and I think the key to success in this communication—as in most forms of communication—is to really understand and serve the audience.

What do audiences for live readings want from the experience? Several things.

They want to gel as a community. Let’s be honest: An audience at a live reading could just as well stay home and read a book, but it is important for writers to come together in person. What we actually do as writers, we do alone. And honestly, I don’t find it much fun. My poems can be painful to write and painful to read. Not every discovery a poem provides is a pleasant one. Community can provide a balm—a reminder that I have fellow sufferers, and that I’m not all alone.

They want to meet the person whose voice they’ve been hearing. When we love a book, we often have a voice in our head. It’s exciting to hear the actual voice of the (half-) creator of the work. The writing is one thing; the work is another. As readers, we have a hand in making a poem, essay, or story what it is, and the real human voice of our collaborator can give the work new life.

They want to be connected to the world of writing. I used to live in a very small rural farm town in northwestern Ohio. It was a good hour from the nearest reading, but when I heard of a literary event, I got in my Volkswagen and I puttered in that direction. I’d buy the writer’s book, or bring it, and I’d stand in line to get that autograph. Mind you, I’m not a collector, and despite all of my other character flaws, I honestly and truly don’t care about things. Those autographs weren’t about adding value to books; they were about having a chance to converse with a “real” writer, someone who was walking the path I wanted to be on. Every word of those small, private talks seemed vitally important to me then.

They want insight into work they love. When work challenges us, it’s sometimes good to go right to the source and ask a few key questions. Readings and the Q&As and signings that sometimes follow can help us to learn more about the work.

They’re fans. I’ve been there. When we’re fans, we want to meet our heroes and make memories in the process. In college, some friends and I traveled about four hours to see Robert Creeley at an event, the Ohio University Spring Literary Festival. It’s a great festival—amazing writers just milling about like humans—and my friends were wild about Creeley. In fact, one friend, George, had his collected poems, and we were fond of reading from it around campfires, and we’d memorize Creeley poems and draw them forth, on occasion, from memory. I remember George handing Creeley that book—spine broken in four places, all of the pages stained from fingers and smoke, most corners turned. George had carefully taped it back together, and the poet received it with the honor it was due. He had to have known in that moment how much he was loved. That’s why we went, in fact—to tell him.

A writer who is privileged enough to be invited to read should honor the audience, no matter their reason for attending. This is true if the reader is a major celebrity or, ahem, a one-book poet.

When I am the reader, I devote some thought to why might make the event memorable for those present. I’d like to offer an experience, and my poetry, which I generally feel very good about, is not, in itself, an experience. 

Poets are generally cognizant of the fact that one poem followed by another poem, and another and another, etc., can take too much out of an audience. It’s why we include a bunch of jibber-jabber between selections. Some of us are better at jibber-jabber than others. I think I’m kind of funny (we all think we’re kind of funny, just as we all think we have excellent taste), so I like to make my audiences laugh between poems—sometimes to continue the fun, and other times to break the tension or sadness. (I may be funny, but my poems frequently are not.)

It’s good to make people laugh. It’s good, too, to make something happen, artistically—and I haven’t found a clear way to do this. I have a poem with some fill-in-the-blank parts, and it’s fun to let the audience literally finish the work with me. Recently, too, I gave a reading in a gallery, and at the very beginning, I invited everyone present to stand up and look at some rather astonishing artwork with me.

At another reading, this one in Washington, D.C., I contemplated having the entire audience face the White House and scream obscenities with me. I reconsidered, though, and instead had everyone name a person deserving of compassion and grace. It was a thing we did, and it was unusual and strangely healing. Something happened that night, and it’s at least a little bit memorable.

Too often readings are a too-long, inexpressive reading of words on the page. Sometimes that’s preferable to the uncomfortable performative acts of certain writers. Sometimes the work is so good it can sustain it.

I’d love to offer some advice for successful readings. I suppose I’d say things like, “Go short instead of long,” or, “Practice reading clearly,” or “Pick work in which something interesting happens.” The best overarching advice is a combination of “Be engaging” and “Make sure your work doesn’t suck,” but no one really sets out to be boring and bad.

My thinking here is that readers should consider the very real audience who is welcoming them—what they need, why they’re there, what would make them happy. Maybe the most important thing to keep in mind is that when we read, it’s not about us—or if it is, it’s only slightly so.


At the end of the day, if we would be good ambassadors for challenging new writing—and we must—we have to think about ways to engage and connect.

.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

May I have several hours of your time?



Would you mind reading this poem and letting me know what you think?

What about this essay? This chapbook? This epic? This novel trilogy?

Writers often get hit up for advice. Writers who teach are especially targeted for this. We know the look—the hopeful smile when a student approaches us with a sheaf of papers and a request.

I used to sport that same smile. I remember asking every professor I had to read my work. They didn’t even have to be English professors. As an undergraduate, I was looking for praise. As a grad student, I wanted affirmation and further challenges. A lot of good people gave me a lot of good time—time they could have spent doing many other things.

And that’s really the issue. When we ask fellow writers to devote time to our work, we are tacitly asking them to devote a little less time to their own. This is something that instructors have to come up with strategies to deal with, or the demands can be overwhelming. But this is also something that all practicing writers need to think about—how to contribute to their community without taking too much time away from our own creative production.

When writers receive a request for feedback, refusing can make them appear unkind. What a requestor may not realize is how many people make the same ask, and how much time it takes to really do justice to a piece of writing—to read, to comment, to discuss. And obviously, quiet time is precious, particularly to writers who work or have families. 

Time spent with another writer’s early drafts is time a writer is not writing her own. It is also lost reading time, and by this I mean time devoted to reading finished, polished, published work—something that is impossible to stay on top of, although this is a task that every writer must try to do.

When the requestor is a good friend, we almost always make time. When the person is a friendly acquaintance, we usually find time for them, too. But often, the people who are asking for our effort—sometimes hours of it—are near strangers to us. As we progress in our writing careers, these people may be actual strangers, people who know us only from the page. 

We often hear stories of literary figures from the past who wrote to their idols for support. Major writers nurtured their protege pen pals, sometimes for a whole lifetime. There is precedent for the request, precedent for the generosity offered in return—in fact, many of our best-loved writers are people we know because a volunteer mentor held their hand in the early going.

I recently taught an introductory writing class with an aspiring fantasy novelist on the roster. The guy was prolific and dealt in every genre. Every week included a new request for feedback—a new story or novel chapter, a new essay or poem.

I am not a professor at this student’s university; I am an adjunct English instructor, the lowest-ranking and lowest-paid instructional staff member at the institution. I get about $2,800 before taxes to teach that student’s class, a cohort of twenty-four who write up to three drafts of five essays. I read and comment on their work, and I also plan for classes, have meetings, spend time on e-mailing and record-keeping, and more. I figured out that I make about $15 per hour before taxes, with no benefits, for the work I do. The student probably doesn’t understand that I’m not in one of those cushy professorships that conservative lawmakers always deride. I’m the working poor—like many adjunct instructors, undercompensated for my expertise.

I think it’s fair to say that I have more than the average amount of affection for my students, and I have unusually strong zeal for my subject matter. I don’t refuse a Composition I student who comes to me with evidence of his similar passion in his hand. So many of the goals of the class can be addressed through their creative work—matters like audience awareness, grammar and mechanics, development. 

What I have noticed throughout my teaching career is that students consider this kind of feedback to be part of an instructor’s job description. They don’t hesitate to ask, and they see it as evidence of their commitment to the subject they teach.

And they are right. A writing student who goes the extra mile—the extra marathon—to draft a novel is a very special person who has earned some extra attention.

As writers, I think we should be cautious about asking each other for time and feedback. I also think we should exercise a few strategies to protect our time when people we don’t know well ask for our assistance with their work. Here are some ideas we can do to keep other people’s writing from interfering with our own:

Set a target. A good community member gives back, and helping other writers in this way is an exercise in literary citizenship. So we might decide that we’re going to work with a certain number of writers—one a month, one a year, six over the summer, etc. Any ask received after that should be encouraged to try getting on our schedule the following year.

Set a price. If writers value our input, they may be willing to pay for it. We might try setting a price for our services as a way of safeguarding our time. If a mentoring relationship develops, we can rethink the money part.

Set a schedule. Can we afford to give the first Monday of every month to other writers? Let the requestor wait until then, and stick to that plan; don’t let the project carry over or linger, but instead do what you can in the time you allocate.

Schedule ourselves first. This is not what we learned in church, but it’s important to be a little selfish with our writing time. For a request that comes while we’re working on a project, we can simply say that we’re focused on that project, and that the writer should ask again in a few weeks or months. If we do say this and the writer remembers to follow through, we should think about making time for them.

Find a faster way. If a writer hands us a novel, there is nothing that says we have to read a whole novel. We can give feedback on the opening few pages instead. When we’re handed a poetry collection, we don’t need to give close readings to all of the poems; we can instead look at something like the way form operates over the course of the book.

Recommend other outlets. It’s good to have at hand a list of favorite coaches, local workshops, or online services that you can suggest to give the writer the help they need.

Say yes—mindfully. Although strangers and acquaintances are hard to accommodate, I actually love reading the work of my writing friends. Occasionally, I find that I’m so busy with my work and family life that this kind of extra project can fall by the wayside, even though I have the will to do it. Lately I have started to set deadlines for myself for those writers I agree to work with. I put deadlines for feedback on my calendar, and I ask each friend to give me a nudge if I forget. 

Say no. Some of us struggle with this, but it’s OK to refuse requests of our time and attention, and we don’t even have to give a reason. As writers, we need to protect our creative time, and it’s very poor form to miss a standing appointment with our muse. If we are serious about what it is we do, we have to put our writing first.

.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Writing community doesn't need to include workshopping

Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein and at 27 rue de Fleurus, the Stein salon  

Writing is a solitary—and holy—act. But that doesn’t mean writers don’t benefit from the bonds of community, a topic I’ve been writing a lot about lately. 

Community takes many forms. I’ve written in some detail about local writing events, which, when they occur with regularity, can do much to cement the bonds among writers. 

Beyond literary happenings, a lot of writers love and depend on their writing groups. These may include formal workshops or, for those who are bypassing or finished with a formal writing education, a close group of writer friends who trade and comment on new work. I’ll bet these informal groups are a lot of fun, when it’s the right bunch—and it must be nice to have someone, or a few someones, who really know our writing goals and help us to recognize them so that we can focus our efforts to reach them.

I’ve never really been in a regular writing group, and I doubt I’d be much good to one. I’d be the person leading the conversation off track, or cracking wise, or doing any number of things to distract us from our purpose. If cocktail wieners are simmering, there’s no question about it—I’m eyeballing those wieners.

I think the reason I shy away from feedback groups is pretty straightforward: I don’t want feedback. And further, I’ve grown to resent the default position the declares readers to be de facto workshoppers.

The fact is that I’m not a fan of workshopping. It’s a thing that served its purpose in my student days, but now I’ve reached a point where I trust my work and my voice, and the feedback I need most is a “yes” or “no” from an editor. I’ve never really used input to revise a particular piece anyway, past small line edits; generally, workshop input, for me, demonstrates how my work is received by an audience, or it informs the general direction of future work. 

While I welcome general opinions about my work—even negative ones, since not every attempt is a winner—I do not welcome uninvited suggestions for what to do to change my work. Something that is lost when we focus too much on workshopping is the ability to just be heard. I write poetry mostly, and I take my craft very seriously, but my poems are not craft projects. They are expressions. They come, sometimes, from my deepest self.

I hope my lack of desire for advice doesn’t read sensitivity. I’m really not thin skinned when it comes to my work. I’d prefer readers like my work, rather than dislike it, but either reaction is fine. The issue is that I find, more and more, that I just want to be heard—not fixed.

And isn’t that what community is—a group of people who listen and share and hear? Our very closest community members may be the ones we invite in for advice and counsel, but this isn’t necessarily true. Some people don’t want suggestions. Where my work is concerned, outside ideas, beyond finite suggestions of things like line edits, aren’t even usable, for the most part, because they are generally not in keeping with the way my work is born.

I guess that’s why I’m such a proponent of literary happenings—places where we can hear readings and have fun with language, maybe chow down on some finger foods. Sometimes community is about company in the journey—a sense that we’re not entirely alone, even though, as writers, this may be mostly true.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Writer's Spirit: The rhythm and disruption of walking

My bat

Yesterday I was out for a hike in Arkansas when a huge butterfly fluttered into my face. It startled me, and I waved it away, barely brushing the tip of its wing with my hand.

And then I really looked, and even though it was early afternoon, gorgeous sunlight all around, that was no butterfly. It was a small reddish-brown bat.

Touching a daytime bat: that’s a gift to a writer. Heck, I’d buy a book of poetry with that title. It’s a real thing that happened, and it’s just begging to be forged into a metaphor for something. Sometimes we do this—we brush against the daytime bat, that thing we had no reason to look for, right there beside our hand ….

But this time around, I’ll keep the bat instead as a mere diary entry, as a thing that happened one beautiful spring day, in that state where almost anywhere you step, there might be a stone chamber beneath us.

Writing forces me to sit at a desk quite a bit, but I love to get out into the woods to renew myself. It’s a family thing; if the weather is reasonable, my whole crew tromps along a dirt path together.

When I walk, I’m always looking downward. I’m fond of snakes, and I’m always hoping to see one. Snakes belong to two worlds, and when they reveal themselves, they bring news of that other place, the one beneath the surface.

I almost never see them, for all my looking. I don’t have that kind of vision. My friend Sherri does. She knows how to look when she’s in nature, and she finds the most astonishing creatures, even though most are designed to stay hidden. I lived in the same town as Sherri for a long time, but I forgot to ask her to help me learn to see. I live in southern Missouri now, and I clomp through the woods all the time. There are snakes everywhere, and lizards, and salamanders, and fabulous bugs. Once, and possibly twice, I did see a tarantula, skittering off the path. Astonishing, this—when I moved here, I never would have dreamed they were all around me, better able to spot me than I them. Sherri would see them. I wish I had her gift.

I don’t walk to exercise, although it’s fine for that. In this, I’m like Henry David Thoreau, who wrote, “The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours … but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.” Thoreau was a big proponent of walking as a tool for improving our capacity for reflection—exercise being a bonus but not the aim of the activity.

Mind you, I’m no Thoreau. Rain keeps me in. So does a chill in the air. So, sometimes, does laziness. I don’t walk every day, although I’d like to be the kind of person who does. 

What I know about walking is that its rhythms lull us into meditation, more quickly and naturally and surely than focusing on our breath can do. And as we walk, we see things—we add to our catalog of reference points and memories in a way we can only do outdoors, away from the familiar. I can stay inside and watch classic TV and have an enjoyable time, but the downside is that no bat will stare into my face, and no tarantula will hide from my feet. Neither will I spot a celt or spear tip—other things I undoubtedly walk over and miss almost 100 percent of the time. (I’ve only ever found one arrowhead, and it was chipped at the tip, blunted, I don’t know when. Maybe it snapped in the ground, or maybe it was discarded by its creator, more annoying than deadly if launched. These are the notions the walker considers.)

Unlike time spent in our interior spaces, which become quickly and permanently familiar, walks—even along accustomed paths—always take us somewhere new. Thoreau knew this, too. He wrote, “An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this any afternoon. Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect to see.”

It’s true. Last week I was walking and found odd, closed, white lilies everywhere around me. I hadn’t seen anything like them before; it was a strange country, and I found it by training my eyes downward. (My friends helped me to identify them as white toad lilies, but I’m pretty sure, having seen yellow ones yesterday, that this isn’t quite right. The blossoms I saw were smaller, more singular, and more frail. I think it’s most probable that these were my very own flowers, scattered along my path by some benevolent creator just for me.)

Walking is restorative for anyone, but it has special benefits for writers, who seek at times both rhythm and disruption—both part of any amble—and who require a library of adventures and reference points if they are to have anything to commit to the page.

Walking gives these to me every day. Yesterday reminded me of how a breeze moving over water cools, how a collapsed cave roof can look newly fallen even after the passage of a millennium, or how a sturdy-looking stepstone sometimes sits atop a fulcrum in a stream.


And it taught me something new about bats, which, I just read, sometimes hunt during the daytime in the spring, when nights are cold and bugs are scarce. Have you ever seen a bat nearly snatch a moth from midair? I have. I’ve been that moth, and every single day I am that bat.