Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Our scraps cannot sustain us

A friend has been accumulating snippets and scraps over the years—little bits of a book-length essay project she’d like to write when she clears her decks of some other pressing projects.

They’re like hors d’oeuvres, these scraps—pops of flavor, about as satisfying as a cocktail wiener on a pick. They’re good or even beautiful, but their job is not to fill us.

Most writers know what it’s like to have a dream project on the back burner. Sometimes these are things we pursue in pockets of time here and there, but other times we leave them to languish. I’m confident that my friend, also named Karen, will get to hers eventually—she’s the kind of person who does. The Karen who is writing to you now will likely never finish that draft of a romance novel she once began as an office-hours project, but she is likely to knock out the publishing textbook she’s been working on for a few years.

My friend’s project is a travel narrative, probably composed of discrete essays, about her relationship to a particular special place. When ideas occur to her, she writes them down, and sometimes her morning pages or other occasional writing includes observations about the topic that’s so close to her heart.

She suggested I tackle this topic in a post—what do we do with our scraps when we’re writing toward something larger?

My answer may be a little disappointing, because we like to think that the work we do is going somewhere, adding up to something—but most of the time, I don’t think we can paste in these segments and arrive at a satisfying whole. These bits and pieces have done their job by keeping our dream project front and center in our mind. The work itself—those words we once jotted on the gas bill—may not be entirely useful.

My friend and I have both fallen into the trap a busy life poses. With so much happening, there aren’t long days to spend at a desk and noodle, daydream, follow our thoughts to their termini; instead, we teach a few classes, grade a stack of papers, handle some correspondence, roll clay into snakes or build Lego spaceships, cobble together some kind of dinner .... People expect things from us, and nearly all of our time is spoken for.

It’s probably tempting to suggest that we don’t need to read someone a bedtime story, but just try telling that to the someone. We need to work; we need to cook and clean and do laundry; we need to make love and exercise and pray and call our mom. Some of this we can put off for a day, but it’s always a matter of shuffling for those of us who have no independent fortune, no patron.

And we’re left with our paltry scraps. For me, they’re usually indistinguishable from garbage, and in fact they’re often made of garbage. That McDonald’s receipt in the recesses of my purse is actually the start of a poem. Those notes on my church bulletin are loose associations that reflect some early thinking about an essay. They’re what I did with the time I had—the “pull forward while we wait for your fries” time; the lost-in-thought-during-the-sermon time.

As difficult as it seems (and, indeed, as difficult as it is), we owe it to ourselves and to our art to make more time for creating, and until we do, I’m not convinced the shortcuts work.

Imagine you’re my friend, and you’re finally at your desk, with time to sort through scraps—some physical, some digital; some overlapping earlier ideas, some going in a new direction; some exciting, some downright inscrutable, whether it’s the idea or the text that is messy.

Does she have a start? Maybe, somewhere in the mix. But it seems to me that she also has a potential distraction during her precious writing time. We like to preserve what we’ve already made—no one wants to re-do old work. But the act of preserving a snippet requires us to organize our thinking around old ideas. We’re always evolving, and the person who wrote a note, or even several pages, is not the person who is sorting scribbled-on receipts right now.

I’ll be honest; often I can look at the start of a poem and pull it from the fire. Poems are often very small. It’s not the same for me with elements of a larger, more ambitious piece of work. That river we slosh into for the second, third, fourth time is just a mimic of that estuary we remember. We dried off. We’re wet with new waters.

Let’s resolve to give ourselves what time we can cobble together—those weeks when we don’t have grading, those days when fast food will suffice, those nights when one bedtime story will do. Where possible, let’s string those spare moments together into an hour, or two, or five—a workday, a whole day, a weekend. And let’s not start with our own intellectual table scraps. Instead, let’s mix up something more sustaining from the creative pantry.

Aren’t you hungry?


Tuesday, January 23, 2018

When publishers close: Some ideas for protecting writers' rights

It seems to be happening more and more: A literary press opens, puts out a few good books, gets some buzz, grows … and then one day, with no warning, it disappears.

Recently, several small presses have dissolved. I had close connections to a couple of them. I was on the staff of one, ELJ Publications, and left a few months before it was shuttered. Another press, Hermeneutic Chaos, published my chapbook—a beautiful thing, lovingly designed—but then it seemingly closed down shop without a word.

Several other small presses have also closed recently—some so recently that the word is not yet out. What happens next is a typical set of scenarios, and a sad one.
Writer A is in production, and every day is spent waiting and watching for a box of hot-off-the-press copies that are never going to show.
Writer B’s book just came out—hooray! But when B tries to order a bunch for an upcoming reading, it’s no longer available, and in fact all of the press’s titles have disappeared.
Writer C has been reading and touring for a year now, and sales are brisk. Suddenly, though, the book is out of print—vaporized in its prime, as if it had never happened at all.
I used to think presses and journals closed because dilettante publishers misunderstood the scope of their job—maybe they didn’t know how hard running a press would be, or how much it would cost. I guess if I’m being honest, I still think that’s the chief reason publishing operations fold, but the publishers I know who went through a closure invested a lot of themselves into the often-thankless work of publishing, and closing down their operations broke their hearts.
The market is not easy for small-press publishers. It seems like every year there are more and more publishing houses releasing more and more titles. (It’s hard to tell exactly how many, since the count is pretty wiggly—they don’t all have Library of Congress numbers, they’re not all paper, and some of what they publish are quasi-books, chapbooks/small books, or hybridized publications.) That’s a lot of competition at every level—for quality manuscripts, for publicity/reviews, for readers and market share, for funding. 

It’s a field, too, where unanticipated costs can mount. Producing a physical copy of a book should include a line editor, a copyeditor, a designer, a proofreader, a publicist, and a distributor, if the job is to be done right—and most of these professionals will also be needed for electronic publication to be handled properly. Every step in the process costs money, and small presses very seldom recoup all of their costs through sales.

It has become clear to me that if a writer agrees to sign on with a small press publisher, it is urgently important to have a contract that anticipates possible closure. This is a good idea with any publisher, but it’s vital in an environment where new publishing houses pop up and disappear with such alarming frequency.

I’m no lawyer. My experience working with writers who have orphaned manuscripts has suggested a few necessary considerations, though, and I’d like to enumerate those here. These are some things to think about before your press closes—and let’s hope it never does:

  • Who has rights to the manuscript? A contract should specify in writing that rights to the work return to the author upon closure of a press. Rights typically do revert to the author in this sort of instance, but contract language can guarantee this, while also indicating when the rights revert back to the author.
  • Who owns the cover? The design of the book is the value added to the manuscript by a publisher—but when a publisher goes out of business, a book may be prominent enough that it is recognizable by its cover. It would be a wise move for a writer to negotiate a way to acquire the rights for the design, including the cover, in the contract.
  • May the writer retain copies of the digital files? I would suggest negotiating for a copy of the digital files of the cover and the interior. It would be a shame for a writer to maintain rights to the design without being able to replicate it.
  • What happens with the list? If a small press closes, everything it ever published is effectively dead, unless the publisher has established a plan for its titles. When a publisher I was involved with closed, several good literary citizen-presses stepped up to offer to carry the list and handle fulfillment of orders from it. The original publisher declined this offer, effectively orphaning all of the titles. Writers worked hard to find presses that would handle reprints, and many were successful. For others, their book is just a memory now.
  • What happens when a publisher goes AWOL? I think it is a very good idea for a writer to put into writing an opt-out trigger. If the publisher declines to reply to a prearranged form of correspondence—say, a registered letter or a set number of e-mails to an agreed-upon address—all rights could revert to the writer. Often, these publishers feel shame when they close their doors, and as a result, they simply disappear, never to be heard from again. It’s very hard to place a manuscript with a new publisher if it’s unclear that rights have reverted back.

It’s hard to fathom when the offer of publication is extended, but there may be a day when everything falls apart. It happened to me, and I’ve seen it happen to many writers I admire. It looks to me as though a few items added to a contract, and a few questions about plans to go into effect upon dissolution, can prevent a lot of heartache for writer and publisher alike.


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Basic ethics of the literary book review

It’s a conundrum. We literary writers frequently publish on small presses, and it can be hard to catch the attention of major review outlets, like Publisher’s Weekly or Kirkus Reviews

Poets have it worse than writers of other genres. Kirkus, for instance, doesn’t even review poetry except for pay—currently starting at $425. But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy feat for a prose literary title on a small or university press to get traction.

But aside from the major outlets, it’s hard to find anyone to review our titles, even in more small-press-friendly litmags. Often it seems that the same small-press titles get all of the attention, and I’m not sure that the quality of the writing is the reason. A standout title or a timely theme can be just as big as factors.

Make no mistake: We want reviews because we want readers. Our hard work demands that we find an audience for the books we publish; sometime it seems as though the stories, poems, and essays themselves stand up and demand to be heard.

But our desire to find reviewers can lead us to what the journalist in me regards as missteps—practices I’d caution us away from.

Several of my social media circles are inhabited by authors, and every now and then, someone will chime in with the idea that members trade reviews—a you-do-me-and-I’ll-do-you kind of arrangement.

This is a very efficient plan; two books get reviewed where none before did. I find that it’s not so hard to publish a review. Many magazines that are too low-budget to pay reviewers are hungry for this kind of free content, and as long as their length and style guidelines are followed, they’ll provide a hungry yes to a review submission.

The problem is that a reader trusts a reviewer to be honest and candid about a book’s merits. Even if some journals publish only recommendations instead of reviews, the reader believes that a recommendation is based on literary merit, and not tit for tat.

In my undergraduate journalism education, a course on reviewing was a required part of the curriculum. Mostly we all went to a classroom at night and watched classic movies—All About Eve and Citizen Kane, for instance—and then wrote cheesy reviews of them. (Two thumbs up for Casablanca!) But in between installments from the Golden Age of Hollywood, my classmates and I actually did get a thorough grounding in this sort of criticism. What was drilled into us from start to finish was our ethical responsibility to our readers.

In short, a review is an opinion—ideally a very informed and educated opinion. I have no palate to speak of, so it would be ridiculous for me to write a review of the cuisine in a high-end restaurant. I just like to eat, and a lot of things taste really good to me. I’m simple like that.

A restaurant reviewer should know quite a bit about kitchen chemistry and processes, and about culinary history and trends. A nice meal costs a little more than this consumer can easily afford, so when I do go out, I’d like to know what I’m getting into, and whether Restaurant A is a better choice than Restaurant B. Reviews can make a difference in how I spend my (meager) resources.

Ditto with movie reviews. A reviewer who understands storytelling, cinematography, acting, and culture can help me to make a good choice when I finally pay a babysitter and venture out to one of the two or three non-animated, non-superhero movies I’m likely to see in a given year.

Let’s presume that literary reviewers haven’t already lost their credibility with readers through back-scratch-trading with writers and favor-currying with publishers. Don’t we sort of look to book reviews in the same way? Something like half a million books are published each year in the U.S., and a new release can run in the $20 range. Where do we put our cash? Attention from reviewers can alert us to and pique our interest in new releases, and they can also help us choose from among all of the books vying for our attention. When these writers abuse our trust, there’s a sense that they’re playing fast and loose with our money.

Another ethical concern reviewers must be impartial. Just because a fellow writer is a friend doesn’t mean that the person has written a top-notch memoir. The opposite—the polar opposite—may be true. But we don’t trash our friends—that’s a different sort of baseline ethics, one from universe that is larger than the literary world.

But we shouldn’t review our friends. Even if we have the sort of near-superhuman power to be impartial, we must avoid the appearance of impartiality. Readers trust that we’re not beholden to the people whose work we’re reviewing, whether by money or love or common interest.

Along similar lines, a reviewer is ethically bound to be honest. We shouldn’t downplay flaws in a book, just as we shouldn’t be more effusive in our praise than the work merits. We should aim for accuracy in description and honesty in assessment. 

Additionally, a reviewer should be educated and informed, so that the assessment of the reviewer matters. When an impartial, honest, well-read reviewer offers effusive praise, it means something.

I should mention that some magazines shy away from negative reviews. After all, a book of poetry from a small press is pretty much destined to be ignored by the larger culture; there’s no sense in a journal kicking it when it’s down. I don’t actually object to this practice; why not recommend good books instead of blasting bad ones? The danger is that a reviewer might adapt an assessment to score the publication, rather than choosing to review books that merit a strong review.

As the author of one full-length poetry collection, with another on the way, I can attest that a positive review feels incomparably good. I appreciated the handful of reviews that appeared in literary publications, but I also loved seeing what my friends thought when they posted customer reviews in places like Amazon and Goodreads. 

I wish we had a vibrant reviewing culture—one in which authors don’t have to form secret reviewing circles for their books to get a little attention. Maybe instead of making pledges to one another, we should make a promise to literature that we’ll pay attention and spread the word.


Tuesday, January 9, 2018

When the poems don't come

Lately, I’ve been finding it hard to write poems.

With a second full-length collection coming out this summer, I should be hitting my poetic stride. Yet I can’t shake the sense that each time I write, I’m writing the very same poem—and that I’ve written the same poem over and over for years.

Sure, I alter bits—focus, diction, syntax, rhetoric, form—but what drives each poem feels inalterably the same. Each one stands as its own tiny chapter in an ongoing treatise on loss.

Poetry is my preferred genre—my “genre of choice” is another way of phrasing it, although poetry seems to have chosen me, rather than the other way around. I write what demands to be written, even if sometimes I first try to chase it away, like skunks from a garbage can, with noise and blue light. 

I find—I’ve always found—that I get very little pleasure from writing poems. I like it when they’re done—I’m proud of the artifacts—but pushing them out into the world is hard and painful work. When the writing isn’t hard, what comes out tends to be something other than a poem, or at least something besides a good one.

I’m decades in to being a poet, but it continues to hurt to write them. On those occasions when they don’t hurt, they read to me as either slick or incomplete. Maybe it’s that I have no skin in the game. Maybe I’m operating from the surface, the top of the head, rather than deeper down inside.

That’s a really apt metaphor, by the way. The intellect operates in a place beyond hurt. Things that come into poems as the product of active reasoning have little capacity for aching. Stitching together a logical if-then series of arguments isn’t a bruising strategy. Even the physical manifestations of mental gymnastics are mild. Maybe we squint a little.

In writing these deeper poems I’m referring to, I’ve found myself doubled over, rocking, clutching my gut. There can be physical pain with deep revelation. When the poetry is good, I’m convinced a higher power is talking to and through me. The only catch is that God speaks in a language of acid.
Let’s be clear: As I stated, this is, in fact, a metaphor. All thinking comes from the brain; we have no other organ with the capacity to reason or even to feel. We think we feel gravel with our feet until we sever our spine and feel nothing.
So this gut talk? That’s still referencing a cerebral process—but as is so often the case, the metaphor feels truer than anything we know about physiology. It is at once physiologically nonsensical and absolutely true that good poetry comes from the gut, and almost anyone who writes understands this to be true.
Throw in some spiritual talk about connecting with a higher intelligence (a god, a muse, the collective unconscious) to get at the heart of a poem, and you’re proving yourself to be willfully ignorant and beyond help—but there’s the voice again, teaching me things I didn’t consciously know.
If we concede that writing must go deeper than the intellect to reach the truths we’re hoping to find (and there’s no reason to believe this—I know plenty of poets who are heady and marvelous), and if we concede that going deep is generally painful, it’s clear why it’s so hard to sit at the writing desk some days.
I have a few methods I use to sneak up on myself, poetically, intellectually, and spiritually:

  • Writing upon waking. When we write while fresh out of bed, we’re closer to that storehouse of dream images, and to that profound intelligence that visits us when we sleep. Making writing the first thing we do provides a welcome shortcut into the mystical woods.

  • Relying on chance. Most insight I have comes when two unrelated things are ratcheted and bound together. These “things” can be images that play together in a fascinating, new way, or they can be words that I hadn’t associated with one another previously. Which cards does the fortune-teller throw down, order and direction random? Which words does the thesaurus pull up? (Fortune-teller, soothsayer, augur, diviner, clairvoyant ….)

  • Chanting. There are a lot of online videos of people chanting, including those offered in long syllables or those in different languages, like Latin or Sanskrit. I find that using my actual voice to chant warms up my poetic voice so that I’m more ready to meet the page.

  • Walking. In “On Walking,” Henry David Thoreau wrote of the value of walking in the wilderness, an activity he called sauntering, for shaking off the village and its cares. “What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?” he penned. I benefit greatly from being in the woods, and my writing thrives on the storehouse of images I see on even a short walk.

  • Taking political action. There’s a lot to contend with in the world, and thoughts of the environment being harmed, or of people being subjected to pain, can keep me from wanting to focus on my (selfish) thoughts. But a writer has to be self-ish. The self is the one who does the work, and it must be given rein. I find that if I spend a little time involved in action—letters to legislators, since writing is the way I know to have an impact on the world—I can give myself permission to do my private musing. One caveat: I wouldn’t write a letter to a senator immediately before writing. That’s pointing our consciousness in the wrong direction.

  • Jotting. Sometimes I like to write Jane Austen style—quickly jotting a few notes to chew on and then hiding them from view when someone enters the room. It’s a skill any parent-writer develops naturally, but it’s an excellent way to keep the consciousness alert and ready for when it’s time to approach the page.

Another good strategy is to write a blog post, I think—so now I’m off to write. We’ll see how it goes.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Another successful year? Depends on how you track it

I’m writing from the end of a marginally disappointing year and the start of a new one filled with promise. 

The fact is, all years are filled with promise at the start, and many disappoint at the end, or else feel kind of neutral. Very seldom do we look back with satisfaction at how much butt we kicked in the previous twelve months. Even when we kick butt, those butts left unkicked come more readily to view in all of their roseate kickability.

A lot of my writer friends are in the habit of reporting year-end stats: how many submissions they made, what percentage of submitted works were accepted, that kind of thing. I am a huge fan of goal setting and tracking, so I am all for this, even if I can’t participate very easily this year—my records are in chaos and I didn’t submit a whole lot anyway. I did publish my favorite flash fiction piece I’ve written, and an interview with it to boot, and that was very satisfying. But publishing activity is quite time consuming, and lack of time was the major theme of my 2017. I have to work very hard as an adjunct instructor to cobble together a living, and my spare time is mostly accounted for elsewhere.

When I see my friends posting outstanding stats, I feel excited for their progress. Good things are built from publishing individual works—book contracts, opportunities to read, careers, advancement. A lot of people I know work extremely hard on making their magic happen, and I am fully here for that.

Unfortunately, other friends report some despondency when they look back at the year just passed. Some submitted a lot but had poor results. Many, like me, didn’t submit much, and a few of these feel the weight of missed opportunities.

I do wonder if there’s not more value to tracking other factors than our submission flow-through. What if we were to quantify the words we wrote, for instance? (I do most of my poetry drafting longhand, often on handy scraps that I employ and promptly lose, so this is darn near unquantifiable for me, but the idea of counting words feels like a move in a good direction.)

What if, too, we were to count the finished works we created, whether good or bad—a count of the stuff that’s done? Then the end of the year would be spent not in a flurry of final submissions, but in nailing that final couplet on a sonnet or finally solving the problem of how to conclude that essay without resorting to bookending. I think I’d feel very satisfied closing out some drafts as I closed out the year.

And wouldn’t it be lovely if we had the discernment and self-love to assess the beauty we made in a given year? Or the truth we told? Or, embracing the Keatsean understanding, both?

I’ve had many poems that were non-starters that nevertheless had wisdom in them—an image or a line or a phrase that was just right, and that sang straight to the moon. But maybe the poem was a goner, and the snippet wouldn’t fit in another poem or story or essay. Maybe I gave up and posted it on social media. It was still true, right? Still beautiful? Where’s our count of that?

It’s my belief that for writers, a measure is more apt than a count. Rather than tapping each accomplishment on its head to account for it, it’s OK to look back on a year (or a life) and to see that there’s a lot there—the spirit had substance, and it’s impossible to throw our arms wide enough to take it all in.

When we’re writing, we’re allowing our very best selves a chance to be present. In my own private way of construing it, we’re tapping in to a higher intelligence that is allowed to express through us, and every moment spent at the page or in our imaginings is time that we allow wisdom and compassion to flow through us. Even if we have a different notion of the source of intelligence, wherever it comes from, we ought to give it opportunity to express, and that’s the very special thing that writers do.

Think of all the lesser things that took up our time in 2017—television reruns, “presidential” tweets, shaving, bagging leaves, sorting mail. So much of life happens without lyricism. If we made any room at all for beauty last year, we should give ourselves credit for contributing to the net good, and perhaps resolve to do it again in 2018.