Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Writer's Spirit: The pull of intention

Living with intention: That’s my project these days, and as a writer, this means writing with intention. Furthermore, as a writer who aspires to reach and impact as many readers as I can, I’m working to keep the writing constantly at the fore of the things I care about.

Today is a good example. I have a habit of making things-to-do lists during church, the part of the week where I am most deliberate about embracing hope and possibility. It means I’m not listening closely about half the time, but that’s OK, too—the brain acts like a sieve, and the important parts catch, and that’s when I listen closely.

Today’s list of tasks is quite a long one, and I don’t see anything on it that can wait until tomorrow. I have two grant applications that need to be completed by the morning. Some teaching and grading work is overdue—work that risks inconveniencing students, who are already overloaded. There are freelance editing tasks to finish and jobs to apply for, both sooner rather than later, and on top of all of this, I’d like to love my kids and clean my house—and I wouldn’t mind watching the Oscars.

But the thing I’m attacking first is this blogpost, and there is a reason for that—one that I’ve written about in the past. Writing is my driving force in life, and when I put writing first, everything falls into place.

Until recently, intention has been … well, intentional for me. It has been a project that I have worked hard to accommodate. I’ve had to deliberately order the items on my list and make sure writing was at the top (sometimes with a little arrow to boost it from where it occurred to me to include it). I’ve also had to make a literal space for writing to happen—a desk, a table, a corner of the couch.

Here, in the universe, I’ve arranged both space and time to accommodate my writing, to allow myself to receive inspiration like a visitor. I’ve made doing this a habit, and inspiration does visit daily, exactly like a familiar friend. Whatever else is going on, I chisel a gap and I step into it and writing is there, ready.

While I was noodling in church, a song played, and few words of its lyrics were caught in my sieve. It was a tune that was familiar from my childhood Baptist days—the kind of hymn we almost never sing in my Unity congregation—and it said something about silently calling.

When I was eight and Baptist—a religion that was already a terrible fit, and not just for me, but for my mom, who merely dropped me off at that church and picked me up after—the lyrics were different, and it was called “Open My Eyes That I May See.” I like the tunes of these old hymns, although the “wretch like me” talk is a little galling (I’m no wretch, and you aren’t, either). Likewise, the constant construction of God as male (Father, He, etc.) seems silly. Still, something about these hymns transports me.

Today we were singing the words “Silently now you call to me,” and I forget the rest of the lyrics, but I’m sure they had to do with our private ability to connect with our universal source (a very Unity-like concept). This sounds so much like my experience with writing, though—no matter how busy I am, I experience this “silent call,” although I find that wording a little ridiculous. It’s more like a pull—a source of gravity, a private planet.

The pull gets stronger the more I honor it, and I can get swept up in it. I lose time to it; I fall away from my physical self.

And that’s why I put it first. There is so much to do! And yet I may as well try to avoid the gravity that holds me to the planet as avoid the need to write.

This is the result of intentionality, which is only beginning to pay off. I’m eager to see where it takes me.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Standing in solidarity with the watchdogs

Yesterday, the Trump administration took the extraordinary step of barring several major media organizations in the White House press corps from attending an official briefing. It was a move New York Times editor Dean Baquet characterized as unprecedented.

“Nothing like this has ever happened at the White House in our long history of covering multiple administrations of different parties,” Baquet maintained in a statement.

Barred from the gathering in addition to The New York Times were CNN, Politico, The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed News, BBC, The Daily Mail, and The Los Angeles Times.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer canceled a scheduled on-camera briefing in favor of the closed briefing in his office, and reporters from the banned outlets were turned away by White House staff at the door. Reporters from the AP and Time left in solidarity with the ousted press corps members.

Citizens should be concerned. And writers, in particular, must stand in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in the news media.

Before I began my career as an academic, I was a professional journalist working for a newspaper in northwestern Ohio. At The Kenton Times, a small-town daily, my job was to cover several beats as one member of a staff of five. I spent my days covering the county commissioners and my nights at meetings of various school boards. I covered breaking news and wrote features, and I had a popular weekly column. I wrote about farm news and religion and local events, and when I was between stories, I’m the person who typed up obituaries and dealt with news releases. I even took pictures at basketball games at the local university, and I covered wrestling when the sports staff needed an extra hand. It was an all-hands-on-deck operation.

It sounds like a far cry from The New York Times, doesn’t it? But here’s the thing: It’s not.

In my life as a reporter, I was driven by a singular mission, which was to inform my readers—the Hardin County, Ohio, public—of decision-making that would impact their lives. I covered rising and falling prices for their soybean harvest, and I covered discrimination at the local high school. I covered murders and accidents, and when the KKK came to pick up trash along a local highway, I covered that, too.

I recently read that the readership of The Times had grown by tens of thousands since election day, and as a response, that newspaper (“the failing New York Times,” as our president describes it) will soon be increasing its newsroom staff by 8 percent to more than 750 people.

I remember how doggedly and purposefully my staff of five worked to be an effective watchdog of the governance structures for the 30,000 people in our county. And I know that the people who devote their energies to reporting to the news for The Times feel exactly the same way.

And so do reporters for Politico, HuffPo, CNN, and all of the other organizations Trump fears enough to exclude. A larger readership suggests even more dedication and purpose, with a larger audience to answer to. Maybe the White House reporter for The Los Angeles Times doesn’t spend her nights under a basketball hoop, training her lens upwards and anticipating the dunk, but those jobs and those missions are not so very different.

There is a piece of conventional wisdom that the right tries to promote about the media, and to my great consternation and sadness, it seems to have caught on even beyond that faction. Trump and company refer frequently to “the crooked media,” and despite an actual crisis with fraudulent reporting, often from other governments that wish to undermine our nation, they dare to blame critical reporting—the job of the media—on the phenomenon of “fake news.”

People on both the left and the right are becoming convinced that the members of the Fourth Estate are working against them, perhaps even monolithically, with the singular purpose of promoting a liberal agenda.

I have never believed in the notion that the mainstream media have a liberal bias. In fact, constant claims of the media’s liberality has resulted in coverage that bends over backwards to be “balanced,” even when much of the rhetoric that comes from the White House and the right seems completely unhinged. Equal treatment of fringe conservative views has effectively created a right-leaning mainstream media—but it can’t lean far enough right for the GOP, for whom critical thinking is not a treasured value.

What I do believe in is the essential goodness of the average reporter. I have seen reporters in action from venues big and small, and I know them to be dedicated servants to their audiences. I know them as brave and principled. The reporters I know are ethical and driven, and they seek only to inform and educate their publics.

If we buy into the idea that the media are all on the take—that they cover the news with nefarious agendas and evil purposes—then we’re playing into the hands of totalitarians. After all, it’s the thief who decries the watchdog.

I have high regard for writers—from poets who report on deep, spiritual truths to journalists who report on the actions of our government. And when writers face threats to access and to free expression, I rise up to stand beside them.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

AWP Conference a networking-free zone

You know you had a good conference when it’s still on your mind two weeks later. And I did enjoy the AWP Conference, which took place Feb. 8-11 in Washington, D.C.

I was just out of graduate school when I went to my first Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Kansas City way back in 2000. I was also the managing editor of a literary journal, and I recall a handful of people asking for my business card, which shouldn’t have surprised me—that’s a thing people do at conferences. The next year, 2001, the conference was in Palm Springs, and I’d ordered a box of a thousand business cards, which seemed like plenty.

It was plenty. I gave away three cards, and I practically had to beg people to take them. I think I still have them in a drawer, and they’re super useful for those times when I need to pass myself off as the managing editor of Mid-American Review.

I’d been to professional conferences before AWP, and business cards are a legitimate thing—the kind of thing you want to be sure to pack. But AWP isn’t really a business card kind of venue. It’s actually kind of … huggy.

Someone who has never been to AWP may reasonably go and expect an ordinary conference, and ordinary conferences involve networking. But networking works a little differently among writers. We network best by reading each other’s work, and we build connections by reviewing and recommending writers, or by dozens of other instances of interaction based upon our art.

A person new to the culture may well go to this annual conference and expect the kinds of networking opportunities we would enjoy at a meeting of solar panel salespeople or shoe manufacturers or IT consultants. In the community of novice writers, there is a pervasive sense that writers get ahead through the virtue of their connections.

I won’t go so far as to claim that this isn’t true; I’ve had work solicited for journals or anthologies by friends, and it’s the people I know who tend to invite me for a reading. But I don’t think connections get us published; it’s the strength of the work that does that, perhaps in conjunction with a writer’s reputation. An editor may well recognize that a writer would add an element of diversity to the mix, or an editor may know that I fit into a demographic they seek. I’m not just Karen Craigo; I’m a middle-aged Midwestern woman who writes poems about motherhood. I was recently reviewed and interviewed by an acquaintance for Literary Mama because I fit the bill of a mom who writes. I would hope my name might come to mind if someone wanted to publish an anthology of Missouri or Ohio or Midwestern writers, or one for women over forty. These things happen.

But I’ve been writing and publishing for a long time. I can attest that the typical route to publication is through writing diligently, revising mercilessly, and submitting endlessly. Writers make connections along the way—the same editors reject us multiple times, or maybe ultimately publish us; we frequently find the same names alongside ours in tables of contents; we show up at the same festivals and readings and, yes, conferences. As in any field, we writers gradually get to know one another.

I went to my first AWP Conference with some flawed ideas about networking and making important connections. Seventeen years later, I found I had almost too many connections, to the extent that I hid out in my hotel room about half the time. But here are a few good ways to build relationships within a huge gathering of writers: Buy other people’s books. Have the writers sign them. Say hello to editors and pick up guidelines and sample issues. And get the most out of panels and readings.

After a short time, it becomes apparent how small the literary world really is. In seventeen years, you’ll have more hugs than you can handle—no business card required.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Simultaneous submissions: A horserace

It’s time someone attempted to explain the ethical horserace of simultaneous submitting.

I am a big believer in simultaneous submitting—that is, submitting the same work to multiple outlets at the same time. It’s the only reasonable way for a writer to operate in today’s publishing environment. Thirty years ago, a few dozen journals considered postal submissions from a much smaller pool of writers, but today, new journals are created all the time, and all typically receive thousands or even thousands of submissions per year.

It’s hard to swim to the top of a submission pile when dealing with those numbers. Response times are frequently slow, if responses are offered at all—more and more journals seem to be adopting the “no news is bad news” model of submission responses—and serial, rather than simultaneous, submissions could mean a lot of wait time.

But there are right ways and wrong ways to simultaneously submit, and there is a cardinal rule that ethical writers must follow: The first journal to accept a piece wins.

To a savvy submitter, this cardinal rule should suggest a few practices for sending out work. 

* First and foremost, aim high. The only practical place to start with a submission is the top. I guess the top varies from writer to writer, but when I invoke the term, I mean to reach up, over our own head. I’ve been in Poetry, which is an excellent journal and a publication I’m very proud of, so for me the top is higher than that—maybe The New Yorker, if the top is determined by the number of readers.

* Also, aim equally. It would be the height of folly to submit simultaneously to The New Yorker and a brand-new, unknown journal. Submitting should be a patient practice, governed by the idea that we’re trying to get each piece into the best possible journal, and for my money, that means the journal with the biggest readership. With all else being equal, I want my poems, stories, and essays to be widely read.

* Aim reasonably. When I was first starting to submit, it made sense to send the same work to, say, eight different journals. I made progress quickly; at first there were more rejections than acceptances, but then my success turned—with a few good credits in my bio, probably, but also with more experience and growth as a writer and submitter. I gradually lowered my simultaneous submission rates to six or four or three journals, and I must confess that these days, I’m pretty lucky with poetry submissions, and I no simultaneously submit in this genre. (Fiction, my weakest genre, is a different story—I still simultaneously submit those few stories I send out because these aren’t as readily accepted by journals.)

* Remember, it’s a horserace. If we submit to multiple journals, and we were careful to aim high and to target journals of similar prominence, we should be prepared to allow the first journal to accept our work to print it. This is one of the main reasons we submit to similarly tiered journals; in the example above, if The Podunk Journal accepts our work on Monday morning and Poetry accepts it on Monday night, we’re honor-bound to go with Podunk. That’s the journal that won the race. Acknowledgement of any acceptance should be immediate, and so should withdrawal from other journals. We must drop everything to take care of this crucial piece of business, mainly so that editors won’t waste time on unavailable work.

* Know the journals you submit to. It’s best to obtain or view a full issue, but most journals have sample contents online. A lot of precious time can be wasted by writers who send poems to fiction journals or traditional work to experimental journals. Investigating the market helps writers to submit respectfully.

* Thank an editor. Respect should be the name of the game when submitting. Editing a journal is hard work, and most of the time editors are either uncompensated or poorly paid. I definitely think the respect should go both ways, and I have a dim view of disrespectful correspondence from editors. But both parties have to make an effort to achieve a positive atmosphere in publishing. No one wants an antagonistic relationship among people who operate within our field.

* Follow journal guidelines to a T. A journal announces its rules and intentions, and writers should abide by them or avoid them. There are enough journals that we don’t have to submit to journals whose policies we dislike. This is especially true for simultaneous submissions. Some old-guard journals don’t allow simulsubs, and that’s their prerogative, to an extent. (They don’t actually have a right to tell writers what to do with their work, but it’s the principle of the thing. There’s no reason to send to a journal with policies we don’t like.)

Beyond all of these rules and best practices, the most important part of submitting is the writing part. One reason I gave up simultaneous submissions for poetry is that it prompted me to finish and refine more work and to keep my creativity going.

Submitting should be a deliberate and thoughtful process, but it’s not a writer’s main job. When publishing is our primary focus, our writing suffers, and we become something other than an artist.

Writers write. And then, in their non-writing time, they work to find an audience—the largest and best one they can.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

On finding time to write

Most mornings, my writing session ends with a drumroll.

That’s how it seems, anyway, as small feet make their careful way down the stairs and then run—pat, pat, pat, pat, pat—to my spot on the couch.

When my little one comes to claim his morning hug, the writing day is over—so the trick is to get up early enough to accomplish what I need to do. The hug is the most important thing, but the writing matters a lot to me, too, so it’s always a difficult balance.

What gives, usually, is sleep—and I don’t see any way around that. Ambitious writing means earlier start times, and with a family, there’s very little wiggle-room on when the day ends. I can’t easily go to bed at 9 p.m. when there is a need for homework supervision and bedtime stories and my own work of course planning and paper grading.

Sometimes the issue resolves itself in a midday nap, when time allows for it. I’m not as effective as a writer as my day progresses, so morning time feels crucial. I like to write when I’m fresh from dreaming and my ideas are not polluted by media of any type (including social). 

There is some writing work I can tackle effectively in the afternoon. That’s a great time for administrative work, like submitting to journals or refining the order and contents of a book manuscript. I need my dreamy, contemplative self for composing, but my alert, midday consciousness is capable of getting work done.

An ideal writing day for me doesn’t happen at home. I need a retreat, and that’s something I do every two months or so—I escape for full days of writing and noodling and snoozing and writing some more. The best retreats involve at least three nights in some private lodging away from home and family, and I work hard to ensure that I’m all caught up with professional responsibilities before I go. Otherwise, the opportunity is wasted.

While home life doesn’t allow for ideal writing days, if I configure each day carefully, writing can happen. Here’s how:

The night before:

* Charge my laptop.
* Get the coffee pot ready to go. (I have a very sweet partner who does this for me every single day.)
* Get to bed as early as possible.
* Jot down those good ideas that come as I’m drifting off to sleep. It’s OK that I won’t be able to read my dark-room handwriting the next day; there’s something about the act of writing that cements ideas for me.

First thing in the morning:

* While still in bed, remember what I can of my dreams overnight—something I find very difficult, usually. My trick: Focus on the feet, and tense and flex the muscles there; then work my way up the legs, to the torso, the hands and arms, the shoulders, the neck, the head. Sometimes I can squeeze a dream out like toothpaste from a tube.
* Get up, press “on” on the coffeepot, and start writing by hand to maximize the mind-body connection.
* At some point, switch to the computer to get down the hand work while I can still read it, and to massage form, especially lineation.
* Welcome the cat’s intrusion. He’ll want a can of food, but then he’ll curl up beside me.
* Write a blog post.
* Get interrupted by kid feet. Cuddle the kid. Watch the news. Get everyone ready for the day.

After everyone leaves:

* Now it’s time for paid work—editing, teaching, grading. No matter how much of this I do, there is always lots more I can get to.
* Absently pet the cat from time to time.
* Grow drowsy and curl up for an hourlong nap, or be too busy to allow myself to get drowsy and curl up for an hourlong nap.
* If I reach a point where I’m caught up and focused, try the administrative work of being a writer and literary citizen.
* Do something political—make a phone call or write an e-mail to a legislator, for instance.
* Read a book. Take notes in the margins of a poetry collection in preparation for a review.

When everyone gets home:

* Do home stuff. Tickle people. Eat things. Wrestle with the cat, who will go too far and bite my wrist and get yelled at for it. Repeat.
* Jot notes as ideas occur for blog topics, poem snippets, essay ideas, submission opportunities, etc.—doing this keeps writing central, and writers have to have writing at the center to be effective.
* Equip kids with devices to buy some time for writing a book review and preparing for the next day.
* Avoid housework. Artists don’t do housework.
* Tackle “The night before” list, above.

It’s readily apparent that this is not how one writes an enduring literary masterpiece. Rather, this is a recipe for modest pieces, and these accrue, obviously—they become a larger whole.

Perhaps in a future post we can explore how the U.S. economy doesn’t allow people to live an artist’s life, which must include long interludes of navel gazing and cloud examination to be fully effective. My schedule here reflects a typical artist’s life—having to be very calculated to fit everything in, when “everything” includes hours of poorly compensated adjunct teaching labor, for me, or underpaid full-time teaching labor, or a job on the clock, or a salaried position that claims more than its fair share of would-be private time.

The good news is that we can get a lot of work done in the time that is available to us, if we look carefully at how our days are configured. A writer’s life is generally incompatible with a sitcom-watching life or an hourlong-pedicure life or a darn-your-own-socks life or a take-up-the-flugelhorn life. But nothing is off the table if we approach life deliberately and treat time like the holy and limited commodity that it is.

Monday, February 20, 2017

AWP Conference a smorgasbord

The AWP Conference ended over a week ago, and I actually went this year, after five years of missing out on the fun. In many ways, I think I’m still recovering.

For those not in the know, AWP stands, improbably, for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. It’s a huge annual event, and the highlight for me is always the book fair, with its free pens and books I’d need several lifetimes to read.

I guess I’ve changed in my years away. I used to be on the go from early morning until earlier morning, setting up to open the book fair and then attending panels and readings, going out to eat, and drinking like a fish until the wee hours.

This conference was markedly different for me. One of the glorious differences was that I actually had a full-length collection to sign—No More Milk, which I read from at an off-site event and signed at the Sundress table.

Also, I’m no longer in charge of a literary journal or press, although I have some editorial roles here and there, so I wasn’t tethered to a book fair table. That was a mixed blessing. Have a fixed place to be is rather nice at AWP; without this, there’s a whole lot of wandering around with no place to put your stuff. (I was able to stash my gear at my partner’s table, but I could come and go as I pleased.)

I don’t really believe in astrology, but I’m an Aquarius, and the list of Aquarian character traits fits me to a T. I think it’s the water-bearer in me that struggles in settings like the AWP Conference. An Aquarius is generally seen as pretty vivacious—the life of the party—but despite this, astrologers say, we can also be aloof, and we value our alone time.

And that’s AWP for me. Although something like 13,000 people attended this year’s conference, I seemed to know every third person, at least by name—and not because they were famous, but because I’d mucked around in a lot of submission piles and social media posts.

Additionally, I saw a couple hundred people who, in other circumstances, I would have wanted to sit down with over breakfast/lunch/dinner/drinks. Obviously, I fan-girled over some writers I adore, and I also connected with some loved ones who live in the Washington area, and I’m so glad I did. But at the conference itself, there were former students with new books to celebrate; there were mentors; there were treasured Facebook friends I’d never met in person, and people who subscribe to this blog, and people I’d enjoyed talking to at conferences. There were even, this time, some people I didn’t know but who had read and enjoyed my book, and I would have loved to get to know them better, if only to see what kind of person likes my kind of person.

When confronted with most of my favorite people in one place, my initial reaction is pleasure—it’s like a buffet with all of my favorite foods, even though those foods share only the context of me, the buffet guest—but then, very quickly, the variety becomes a source of stress, exactly like being in an unfamiliar restaurant with a too-big menu. (Am I unusual in my preference for small menus, where the chef has selected a few items I might enjoy choosing from?)

My reaction to this smorgasbord used to be different—I’d dig right in with gusto. But this year I approached it with some trepidation, with the equivalent action of filling a single plate with tiny, discrete spoonfuls, each barely a bite, none of the elements touching or overlapping.

I spent much of the conference in my hotel room, and it was still overwhelming.

In past years, my life was different. Although I was bookless, I was not friendless—I worked in a setting that included lots of fun peers and a shared sense of purpose. This year I went to the conference as an adjunct, albeit an adjunct with a book, and I found that going from very solitary days to a hug every ten minutes was a little jarring.

Mind you, I prefer the hugs. But still. Jarring.

I will say this—being among all of those writers and walking away with so many exciting new titles was a treat, and as someone who exists outside of a real-life writing community, the experience was a lovely reminder of how writers are connected by their experience, and how readers and writers are connected on the page.

So thousands of writers reminded me that I’m not alone. And the message got through. It continues to stick. And here I am, writing right now.

I’d say I owe AWP my gratitude, and my promise to see everyone again next year.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Poem366: ARMOR, AMOUR by Amy Pence

Hooray for the AWP Conference, which afforded me an opportunity to see all kinds of gorgeous new poetry books on display at the book fair.

Actually, on Saturday, the last day of the conference and fair, I attempted to execute a plan to gather review copies for my Better View of the Moon daily poetry book feature. A lot of presses offer deep discounts and giveaways on the last day, simply to cut down on the amount they have to ship or schlep home—I’ve been in that position, and finding readers for a press’ or journal’s writers was always my top priority as each book fair came to a close.

But things didn’t go quite the way I planned. At the very first place I stopped, a university press from the Deep South, I asked if they had any review copies they would be interested in parting with, and the publisher regarded me with deep suspicion. He asked for my card. (Better View of the Moon does not currently have a card.)

So, amid hundreds of tables of poetry publishers who would happily mail me a copy upon request, I found myself frozen by the unfriendliness and suspicion of one publisher. That’s when I ran into a longtime friend, Sandra Meek, who is a founding editor of ninebark press. Sandra was signing her own book, An Ecology of Elsewhere, at her publisher’s (Persea Books) table, and she directed me to the ninebark display, and invited me to pick up a copy of Armor, Amour by Amy Pence (published by ninebark in 2012).

I’m so glad I did. This little book is, first off, lovely to behold. It is horizontally configured, 5.5 inches tall and 7.5 inches wide, so it fits nicely in the hand, and it features a stunning Art Deco-inspired painting of a winged woman titled “Winged, I Leave” by artist Seth Fitts. The lettering is a nostalgic script—hand-type calligraphy—and the background color is a dreamy peachy-pink. It’s a pretty book outside, but what’s inside is much too complicated for that adjective.

The book is broken into sections with titles like “Regret—,” “Vanity—,” “Suffering—,” and more. The poems start small, with a “Preamble” poem, only five lines, setting the scene:

Every soul says
relinquish. The sky
almost lucid. Stalks rise
where trees
once were.

It’s an uncanny little poem, and it sets an atmosphere that feels brilliantly at odds with the pretty cover.

I’m very taken with the first poem in the collection, in that first section that deals mostly with the natural world. Poems about flowers always demand to be compared to Louise Gl├╝ck’s flower poems in The Wild Iris, and “Balloon Flower” is right in that spirit, but entirely Pence’s own:

The pentad ache with air,
exhale our illusory life.

Don’t forget the bruisings.
Don’t forget what we’ve done:
Don’t forget—gasping open—

who we are—all five petals—
when we near it.

I can easily picture the five fat petals of the balloon flower, shot through with slightly darker veins than the pink or purple of flower. I like the picture Pence presents of the balloon flower representing wholeness that is easily harmed. It’s a fine metaphor for the poems that follow.

As the book progresses, the poems get longer and fuller, and they culminate in Section 6, “Velocity—.” In this section, the poems occupy a lot of horizontal space, with lines that read both across and down the page. The poems sort of enact a falling apart; they deconstruct and disintegrate in the reader’s hands.

In a poem called “Vessel / II,” Pence writes that “pain unmakes / what world / we had,” in lines that stairstep down the middle of the page, and I can see it happening.

In Pence’s final poem, “What Lasts,” her apocalyptic vision is fully realized. It begins,

Not the bones, not my hands            to cradle the ashes—
your bones                      Not the dogwood stuttering open: a gasp
                        an elapse: time—                  its movement
Not the icebergs withdrawing                                  the ozone opening
                        muscled outcroppings                                     weakened
                                       under waves …

It’s a beautifully constructed book, both to the eye and to the imagination, and I encourage any lover of poetry to hold Pence’s hand as everything falls apart.

A Writer's Spirit: When we meet an obstruction in the road

Two weeks ago, I set out on a seven-hundred-mile trip home after a reading at a university and a visit with my mom. It was a cloudy night, spitting snow, on a dark stretch of highway, and I was a hundred miles in.

And then, the deer.

He appeared in front of me from my left, running hard. He’d cleared three lanes when I hit him going seventy-five. In the briefest moment, I took him in. He was a large buck with a fine rack. He was in front of me, and then his body flew over my car.

It’s funny how things can change in an instant. The buck lost his life in an instant, and I had a concussion in an instant. My Volkswagen Golf—seventeen years old, reliable and paid for—was totaled in an instant.

I had been blogging steadily since Jan. 1, and was posting twice or three times a day, but, in an instant, that was on hold; blurry vision and foggy thinking made writing difficult, so I did what I had to do, my paid work, instead of what I wanted to do: my personal writing projects and my blog.

I’m like a lot of writers. The art we make is voluntary. No one is waiting for it; no one demands it or even expects it. When we hurt ourselves or a crisis arises, we often plug ahead with our paid work, and when something has to give, what gives is our creative output.

The trick, always, is to jump back in and start again. Before my accident, I was really enjoying a daily book review project—reading a poetry book every day and writing an appreciation of it. I was learning a lot about craft by paying such close daily attention to so many disparate voices, and I was also building good habits of mind. Writers need to read—ideally, they must stay current, and what they take in helps to inform their writing practices.

Here’s the interesting thing about my wreck. Before I crashed my car, I was thinking about how I should get a new vehicle—something reliable and safe to take me all around the Midwest for the readings I do from time to time. It was just time for an upgrade, but my employment situation (or rather my full-time unemployment situation) meant that buying a car was impractical.

The wreck forced the issue. My car got me the six hundred remaining miles home, but it was badly smashed, and it would have required thousands of dollars of repairs to be roadworthy. I did not have full coverage—that wouldn’t have made much sense for such an old car—but nevertheless, I could see that my car was effectively totaled.

While visiting with my mom, I had told her what I would want in a car—an import without many miles on it, something older that I could afford, but also, if I could have what I really wanted, it would have heated seats and a moonroof, like my Volkswagen.

And now it’s in my driveway—a Hyundai Sonata, 2007, only 44,000 miles on it, with, unbelievably, those completely non-essential features, heated seats and a moon roof.

It’s easy to feel like the universe is a cold and impersonal entity. That’s how it almost always behaves, and it’s the reasonable view of things—we should be an imperceptible nothing inside of its sprawling infinity. But sometimes the universe gives us what we need—and it is exactly, eerily precise.

Even my break from writing has me rethinking some things. I don’t like how I was responding to politics, for instance—it was like I was at the very end of a long game of crack-the-whip, and I was being jerked all around instead of asserting my own power. And my daily reviews were becoming formulaic; I’ve realized that I need to slow down and be more craft-centered instead of content-centered.

Sometimes the universe stops us in our tracks very literally. We’re driving along at 75 miles per hour and there’s an obstruction before us. A sudden change means we can’t continue as we were.

And it’s OK, or it can be. If the thing that stops us doesn’t end us altogether, we get to regroup, restart. We can come back rested and ready to give things another go.

I’m glad to be back on the road.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

When you're burned by the sun: Starting a story

Here comes the sun, doo-do-doo-dooo.

And it’s all right. But it’s kind of an unsurprising way to start a story.

Almost any occasion I’ve had to read lots of unpublished fiction in one place—a submission pile, contest judging—I’ve noted the phenomenon. Writers love to start their stories with time markers, and their first thought seems to be a description of the quality of light or dark. That’s how it happens that the sun becomes the main character of most novice stories, at least for the first paragraph or so.

The sun is our most obvious timepiece, and it’s more evocative than a Timex. So we got to it, start after start after start.

The sun was just cresting the henhouse on old farmer Jenkins’ land …

Morning sun played over Josie’s eyes as she lay in that unfamiliar bed …

The midday sun beat down on Bubba’s bald pate …

Sun dappled the orchard as Cletus finished his day’s picking …

OK, I made those up. But for anyone who reads fiction submissions, there is nothing particularly nutty or overblown about these examples. If you’re reading a stack of five stories, one of them is bound to have the sun in the first paragraph—or the twin suns of the planet Jabbar, or the thin cuticle of moon, or the gathering clouds that obscure the afternoon sun …. I’m carried away with examples, but not with numbers. One in five feels conservative to me.

When story writers don’t start with the sun, they frequently begin with other timepieces. There might be an actual clock. Someone may be tapping a foot impatiently while waiting for something or someone. A tolling might be heard from the distant square.

I write less fiction than I do poetry, and I can say that this is also one of my habits—one of those things I do repeatedly without realizing it. I’m looking at files of failed poems, and I see that I’ve started several of them “Yesterday, …,” or “One morning, …,” or “When I was a child ….”

There’s certainly nothing wrong with orienting a reader, but the problem comes when we do this too frequently and our beginnings lack the element of surprise. In a collection of twenty stories, is it OK if five of them start with the sun, or if ten of them start with setting details? I don’t think so. In fact, I’m afraid such a writer could look a bit like a one-trick sunfish.

The solution is obvious, whether with a poem or a story or an essay, and it is to jump right in, in medias res. The sun isn’t generally part of the action, so starting in medias res—“in the middle of things”—eliminates the obvious opener. There are lots of ways to start a story, but beginning with action has the advantage of mixing things up in a very natural way. Our stories usually feature different characters doing different things, so starting out by throwing them into a situation is a way to avoid repetitive openers. Even if we always start in medias res, every “res” is different.

I happen to think that starting with the sun or a similar time marker amounts to a windup, a warm-up. Writers do this because we’re looking for a toehold, a ladder up into the story. In my poetry, I’ve learned, finally, to kick away the ladder. I may still write it, but I target it for revision almost every time.

It’s good to respect what gets us to the dance. But it’s not necessary to “dance with the one what brung ya.” How we start working on a piece of writing doesn’t have to matter to the finished product. I recommend that any writer go to town on the sun, if it gets the pen moving or the keyboard clicking.

But today you’re going to walk out of your house, and it’s likely that you won’t even think of the sun, even though it’s literally the largest influence on our lives, mass-wise—even though it’s ubiquitous and ever-changing and even pretty interesting. 

When the story is working, its characters and their actions should be more interesting. What your characters do and think and feel should give off its own light.