Sunday, December 30, 2007

Better Than Money

"I have to let you know," said the young poet who sought me out at the party, "that your new book inspired me to write my first nonfiction. I've had some stuff to deal with, and I thought first that I might write it as fiction. But it came out as nonfiction. It's my first essay. I just wanted to thank you."

"That's really great," I said.

"And whenever I got sort of stuck while I was writing it, I would look at the essays in your book and see what you had done. I used them as a sort of template."

"I'm glad," I said.

"I never thought I'd write any nonfiction. It was such a surprise!"

"Poets tend to write good nonfiction," I said. "Could you tell," I added, "in those earlier essays, whose template I was using? James Baldwin's," I said. "You can see me imitating his sentence structure. Until I got my own."

"I love James Baldwin. I've read a lot of his fiction. I love Sonny's Blues, and use it in every class I teach. But I didn't know he wrote essays."

"He wrote great, great essays. His fiction really doesn't compare at all. I hope you can get the collected-essays book called The Price of the Ticket. If I have any regrets," I said to the poet, "it's that during his lifetime I must have had the chance to hear James Baldwin read from his work, maybe on a campus, and I must have passed it up. I'd never even heard of him. I was already in my 30s when I first read his work. But his essays were my inspiration."

"Yours were mine!"

And later I thought: That's more proof that only good has come of my having the nerve to self-publish. I don't mean money; I can go work at Wal-Mart and make money. I mean true genuine good.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Keep your Poems Safe

A must-read, creative writers, by a writer/editor who knows about computer security:
Cherry Pie Press: Keep your poems safe

The Almost-Finished Poem

I have this little paradise of almost-finished poems: a file called "Completed Poems - Almost."

When I have a block of time, preferably about six to ten days, I draft poems like crazy, writing big, big, long, sloppy, inclusive first drafts. I let it all hang out. I run the idea into the ground. These drafts are raw material. I mark each of them "Draft 1" and print them out. They go together in an envelope marked with the approximate date of composition (such as "Fall 2007").

When there's another spot of time (at least six months later) I delete and toss the hopeless drafts. Those that still stand are so long 'n' sloppy I can easily refine them simply by cutting. If after that I still care, I print these drafts out, mark them "Draft 2," and then the intensive crafting work begins.

When a poem is almost finished -- when it's whole except for, say, that one nagging word, or one line, or a closing line -- it is promoted to the file "Completed Poems - Almost."

I visit this file with pleasant anticipation, when I have time, usually every six months or so. Often I can immediately see what the unfinished poem needs, supply it, and promote it to "Completed Poems." They get printed and put in a binder, marked "New Poems," and then I toss the drafts.

A really sticky "almost-poem" I'll read aloud. My sense of embarrassment, boredom, or distaste tells me exactly where to apply my crafting efforts -- or whether any further efforts will be in vain.

Some drafts do hard time in that "Almost" file. But I like that file even better than "Completed Poems." A completed poem is satisfying, but the adventure of making it, the romance, the wild guesses, the risks, the faith, the Nikola-Tesla-like experimentation, the race to the finish, that chance that this poem will be really, really great -- is so OVER.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

What People Say

A very serious young student heard me read from my poems. I asked her opinion later. (Never do that.) She said, "Cute."

She was being pompous in a twentysomething way (recalling too well my own flaming youth), but this lodged in me like a grain of sand in an oyster. Of all the things I've been and ever aimed to be, I've never wanted to be cute. I'd like to be entertaining, like Chaucer, but also have his smarts. Coy, kittenish -- no!

A hundred defenses occured to me: She doesn't register my feminist politics -- because she's so young she never had to have any! -- She has no idea what poetry costs! -- and so forth.

Then I saw this Soviet-era quotation from a poem addressed to poets:

“[…]/ This is for you—who dance and pipe on pipes,/ sell yourselves openly,/ sin in secret,/ and picture your future as academicians/ with outsized rations./ I admonish you,/ I—/ genius or not—/ who have forsaken trifles/ and work in Rosta*,/ I admonish you—/ before they disperse you with rifle-butts/ Give it up!/ Give it up!/ Forget it./ Spit/ on rhymes/ and arias/ and the rose bush/ and other such mawkishness/ from the arsenal of the arts./ […] There are no fools today/ to crowd open mouthed round a “maestro”/ and await his pronouncement./ Comrades!/ give us a new form of art—/ an art/ that will pull the republic out of the mud.”

Spot-on, I thought. Was that what my student had meant? But has a poet ever done that? Maybe Whitman? But with such a muddied republic as ours is? Can it be done? What would it cost me? Should a poet care what it might cost?

[from The Bedbug and Selected Poems, by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Indiana University Press, 1975. Translated from Russian by Edwin Morgan. *"Rosta" is a contraction of "Russian Telegraph Agency"; the line's connotation is "and give my all for our people."]

Monday, December 10, 2007

Does Joyce Carol Oates Have to Be a Good Speaker?

Dear Joyce: I know who told you that the three speeches at the [name omitted] University event must all be finished by 6:00 p.m., and that as the luminary, the star of the show, you must assume the podium last. You did so explaining that your speech had been written to fill 35 minutes, but that someone [name omitted, by both you and me] had implied that something awful would happen if we weren't all outta there by 6:00 p.m., so you'd skip through and make it 20 minutes.

So your talk on "The Writer's (Secret) Life: Woundedness, Rejection, and Inspiration," that we were all so hot to hear got clipped. My heart sank as you said, paging through your text, “I’m skipping here. . . I’ll have to skip this. . .” Mostly you read good quotations and biographical bits, and even made some high-literate jokes ("To tell one's name the livelong day to an admiring Blog”). We liked you, and laughed, and you looked fffabulous – tall and skinny, pre-Raphaelite face and rippling hair – can you be 69 years old? Unbelievable!). You even cared enough to wear cool earrings (they signify friendliness). But yours was not the happenin' speech that we, your fans, hoped to hear.

Yeah, but on reflection, who decided that writers had to do everything? Write well, get the right publishers, publish a lot, win prizes, teach well, look well, be friendly, gracious, amusing, helpful, open, socially adept, generous, available, witty, succinct and inspiring speakers, perceptive social commentators, and politically correct? And spokespeople too for their race, their gender, their faith, their politics, their genre? And all the while shrewdly and subtly sell themselves and their wares? Holy mackerel! People don’t expect even God to do all that! But I could clearly see that's what you aimed for!

Enough already! For the artificial difficulties thrown in your way, you did fine, and I hope you got scads of money for appearing. Perhaps $8,000 (that’s what Jonathan Kozol, the anti-segregationist writer and educator, charges, last I heard). – Your Admirer and Fan.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Free to B!

The ms. sent out in June got rejected yesterday. YAY! Now for Plan B. "B" stands for "Better"! With the social-software course I took this autumn, and the appearance of the very viable, buyable, Kindle reading pod at, I can with confidence bypass traditional publishers and, if I decide, turn it into an eBook and do just fine.

That’s sort of like sending a movie not to theaters but straight to DVD.

To make an eBook is free unless an ISBN is required. Ridiculously, ISBN numbers are sold, by one vendor (Bowker), normally in packages of 10, and that package costs $245 plus $30 handling. They sell singles for $125 (!) but they don’t advertise that. (Info is from and Talk about artificially difficult!

But I might just do it for Fame: St. Louis Writers of the 1990s. Somebody must want to read interviews with Donald Finkel, Carl Phillips, Harper Barnes, Ntozake Shange, and seven more, for their historic value -- or just explore the minds of fine writers. This summer I researched and wrote killer introductions to each interview, and (in a rare instance) am still glowing from how well I did them. They kick! Wish I’d interviewed MORE writers.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

How Does a Writer Take a Vacation?

Once I spent a whole day cleaning an institutional meat grinder. I was volunteering, helping humanity, trying to pry myself out of my little isolated writer's dream world. Volunteering has always somehow brought me in contact with mops and dishmops and bleach and soapy water. So volunteering is not an option for my vacation -- from writing.

I don't have money (it's December, when property taxes eat 1/3 of my monthly net), so trips and dinners and shows and retail therapy are out. It's also cold outside, and it's hunting season, which puts the kibosh on outdoor adventures.

All year I have put off reading and doing a workbook that in 10 easy steps will turn me into A People Person. The author says that to do this I will have to become a Christian. I suppose that's little enough to ask. However, it doesn't sound restful enough to count as a vacation.

I could lie in bed, on the couch, or on the carpet, and read, and watch movies and TV -- or just do nothing -- but only after I return home from my day job, because I can't take a vacation from that, not at this busy time of year.

I could clean the house from top to bottom. Or draw pictures, or do crafts. These are all unsatisfying pastimes -- and they are "pastimes," and time is passing a heck of a lot faster than it used to.

Dear person who thinks I need a vacation from writing: I'd rather write!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Oh, Yes, Physical Health Too

Believe, I know what happens to long-distance writers, and suggest:

Hands/wrist/fingers/forearms hurt or tingly? You cannot fix this by yourself. Contact dr. and demand referral to a physical therapist. Yes, it costs money, but trust me, you cannot live without hands. (Try to worm out of the "nerve conduction test," aka the "nerve crucifixion test.") The physical therapist can show you how to prevent future injuries.

Gettin' flabby? Walk for 30 minutes a day. It's like keeping a journal: hateful for the first few days, then addictive. Now that I am older, a walk, like, gives me an actual buzz, man.

Backache? Get a back-support pillow, and/or a "kneeling chair." This latter will force your back muscles to hold you up and thus stay strong. Lots of backache? Give a chiropractor a chance. They do not cost as much as MDs and will not invade your body nor prescribe poisons for it.

Stressed? Go alone someplace strange or do something you've never done. Once I went to a solo drum concert. Another time walking in an unfamiliar field I found a teepee and hid inside. Once I forced myself to have tea at the Adams Mark Hotel. Once I went to a psychic fair & there I got a photograph of my aura (it's red).

Soothe eyestrain with "computer glasses," aka "single-vision lenses." The eye doc will know what you mean.

Depressed? This isn't for everyone, but a really stubborn case that does not respond to therapy may respond to piercing. No joke. I got through a horrible passage of my life by having my ears pierced with an 18-gauge needle at a heavy-metal tattoo and piercing parlor. I was the only customer wearing a Kasper suit and pumps and pantyhose. BTW, this is why kids get piercings; the more and grosser the piercings, the sadder their lives.

If writing is making you suffer, there's something that needs changing!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Kindle, a Portable Reading Pod

The "reading pod" that everyone will have in a couple of years (like the iPod everyone listens to music on now) has come of age. You can now glimpse the future of reading at:

I watched the video demonstration of how what they call "the Kindle" works:
  • daily newspapers are delivered wirelessly
  • one may buy and wirelessly download all bestsellers plus other books and blogs (not all of them; that will have to change)
  • you don't need to find WiFi "hotspots" to do your reading or downloading; it works anywhere a cellphone will work
  • you can read in bright sunlight or dark, lighting doesn't matter
  • you can adjust the type size to your comfort level
  • the Kindle will turn the "pages," even "dog-ear" them -- oh, and your book will re-open to the page you were last reading.
Amazon wanted really badly to create a reading pod that was tied to purchases and no others. This is their mistake. And the Kindle is too new to buy. (At $399 it is expensive, but in a year, the price will come down; and it'll be finer-tuned.)

If you are "tech," here is the review from, a most trustworthy source, which agrees that the Kindle is too expensive as of yet -- and that it needs the ability to read PDF files. (That's what'll make it able to read self-published books.) Stay tuned. Sure, publishers will still print books. But in five years you will own a reading pod much like this.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Reader-Writer Alliance is Here

I delighted in this New York Times article about bookstores in the Berkshires becoming cultural centers where townspeople go not only to buy books but rub shoulders, chat, meet for discussions, and hear authors read -- local authors especially. The reader-writer alliance that will govern the future is not just a pipe dream. If you need to see something in The Times before you believe it, here it is, just as if writers had conspired and planned it. Does it not seem like Paradise Found?

The future will look like this, except it won't be just white, urbane, and middle-class. Where such alliances don't exist, they'll be created.

Monday, October 29, 2007

A Writer's Week

Sunday: Led poetry workshop. Made a friend.
Monday: Decided to make trouble at the big fancy university, and submitted Island Universe for inclusion in the "Faculty Celebration of the Book," a glittery, every-five-years university event at which real faculty (not adjuncts like me) are invited to show off and sell their books. Asked two friends for the recommendations that were required.
Tuesday: One of the above friends, an editor, sent SOS for an essay. I hadn't any that were near completion. I contacted 7 writers including former students. Six writers had essays, finished and polished and stockpiled, and sent them to the editor for consideration.
Wednesday: Writer's group meeting. We planned our group retreat; it will include a group goal-planning session.
Thursday: During lunch break, rehearsed and timed Saturday's public reading.
Friday: Woke from 2nd consecutive dream that told me I should become a full-time freelancer for big markets.
Saturday: A.M.: Consigned copies of new book to local bookstore. P.M. Public reading.
Sunday: Rested.
Monday: Took 3 "poem idea" scraps from my carnival-glass "idea holder," and drafted three new poems. Received ninth rejection of writing group's manuscript.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Gee,Thanks: How a Writer Pays Debts

Authors thank their editors, friends, teachers, patrons and so forth on a page in the front of their books. When my turn came it was like a big hairy math problem:
1. Thanking everyone would have been a book in itself.
2. Many people helped me and all of it was important, so I couldn't list only a few select people.
3. Those unlikely to see the book must still be acknowledged.
4. One wants to give sincere thanks regarding that particular book, not favor other writers who used one's name in THEIR acknowledgements.
5. Using famous names looks like fawning.
6. There's a temptation to get even by making grossly obvious omissions.
7. There's a besetting "f--- you" fantasy: listing idiots, enemies, and thwarters, and concluding with "No thanks to you." There's a reason why that must stay a fantasy.
8. Thanks are due, and one can't withhold acknowledgments just because the whole issue is touchy.
9. How does one order the selected names? Alphabetically? Most-to-least? Least-to-most (leaving the best for last)? (Then how do I set it up so no one can decode this?)
Just another barbed-wire fence in this artificially difficult profession!
Final count: 23 names, 1 group name (covers 7 people) = 30 people, listed in the chronological order that I met them.
That number, for a book of prose, is about average.

Monday, October 15, 2007

About the Cover Artist

First copy arrived Saturday. Went on today (10/15). I like it and hope you do too.

Story of the cover art: In 1983 I bought a postcard with a strange and striking picture on it: a bird fantastically feathered with autumn leaves. I kept it posted in my writing space for 20 years, through cross-country moves, always thinking, "I'd like that painting on the cover of my first book." Finally in 2005 I put together Fierce Consent and Other Poems. I had the painting's name and date: "Der Herbstvogel" (Autumn Bird), 1970. Google led me to its painter, Siegbert Hahn (b. 1937) of Germany. Through his website I E-mailed him and he most graciously gave permission to use Der Herbstvogel on my book cover. Dream come magically true! His assent was how I knew I should go ahead with publishing that book.

I considered Mr. Hahn's paintings again when I put together Island Universe. Titled "Die vielen Wirklichkeiten" (The Many Realities, 2000), this painting was a perfect fit. Mr. Hahn again permitted me to use his painting, this time sending the original slide for scanning so the lines would be crisp and the colors true. "One of my most mystical paintings," he wrote. Without the Internet I would never have found the artist. Perhaps in 2008 I will go to Cologne and meet him and his partner of 40 years, Dr. Peter Guckel.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Famous Friends

NYT today published a three-page article about novelist Tom Perrotta. At Syracuse, in the graduate program in fiction writing, he was a classmate (class of '88). The two fellowships had gone to the Golden Boy and the Hemingway Boy, and the rest of us taught two sections of Freshman Comp, 25 students each. I complained to Tom that I had little time to write. He advised me to do as he did and "blow off teaching."

Well, I just couldn't let my freshmen down -- and there was the fork in the road.

The six men in our class went on to publish: four became fiction writers, one a poet. I'm glad for the successes of Tom and George Saunders, a deserving Golden Boy, beloved by The New Yorker, now teaching at Syracuse. They were never my close friends, and Tom I never saw again, and George only once, but I have had the honor of being considered their peer.

The three women were all depressed. One went to St. Louis where SHE had the fellowship (in poetry. Her fiction wasn't worth a bean. Back then there was no such thing as creative nonfiction).

I see now that for a young writer to keep writing, someone has to give you, grant you, a boost -- a scholarship, fellowship, some prizes, a mentor, a wealthy spouse, a lucky break. Or you have to boost yourself by boldly breaking down whatever holds you back.

In honor of Tom's success, and Doris Lessing's -- blow off an obligation today!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

New Book & Nobel

Arrived today: the first copy of Island Universe; beautiful, especially the cover painting. More copies will follow. Two hours it took to get my eyes off of it. A new book is like a new baby.

News I loved: Doris Lessing wins the Nobel Prize. On TV she said of her youthful self, "Nothing could stop me. . . ." For 25 years I have admired her writing, and her shamelessness -- now copied by everybody, and not unusual, but there was a time when a woman writer should have felt ashamed. She changed that. This past year read the five Martha Quest novels in order: Martha Quest, A Proper Marriage, A Ripple from the Storm, Landlocked, and The Four-Gated City. (Ordered used copies; A Ripple was especially hard to get -- the Washington University Library *didn't have* the middle three novels; now there's a real occasion for shame!) Then The Golden Notebook. Martha's apartments, her political meetings, her nights of drinking and dancing, her jobs and quandaries were all enthrallingly real. The NYTBR tells me Jonathan so-and-so and Don whatsis are the great writers, & I just have to smile.

I want to be like Doris Lessing and publish a new book every two years until I'm 87. She would say I should have done that all along.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Nine Ways to Judge a Literary Journal

Pretend the literary journal you're looking at is a person, and ask yourself if this is the sort of person you would like to befriend.

1. How does it look? Healthy, artsy, sloppy, folksy, ritzy? . . . . and do you like its looks?
2. Does it seem able to appreciate people (writers) like you?
3. Does it seem to refer constantly, not to say obsessively, to things you have had enough of, such as Greek myths, old barns, eating disorders, famous dead writers, or graphic depictions of meaningless sex?
4. Is it trying hard to be something it's not?
5. Does this journal let you know, through its form or content or list of contributors, that it doesn't care to associate with your kind?
6. Is there something in this journal that intrigues or stimulates or impresses you?
7. Do you like this journal enough to see it again? To sit down and have lunch with it?
8. Do you two have anything in common?
9. Would you like to be associated with this journal?

Full disclosure: At this time I am a longtime subscriber to just one literary journal, and that's the quarterly Creative Nonfiction. I keep up with Natural Bridge. Not long ago I gave up The Sun and The New Yorker, because they arrived so often that reading each issue felt like a job.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Rejection at 50

My first published poem appeared 32 years ago. Rejections stung only a little. (There was still time to win a Pulitzer by age 25.) Then, around age 40, when I expected more rewards, my fragility increased: Call it osteoporosis of the soul. This forced me to systematically, ALPHABETICALLY, read through literary journals and submit only to those that published poems like mine. This HATEFUL activity forced me through jungles of jealousy: "She's younger than I! And he writes better! And that's a great poem! And she's published four books! And there's my former student in a journal I failed to get into!"

Actually, I was doing the smart thing, business-wise, because publishing is a business, but it only increased my fragility. Approaching age 50, I dreaded those S.A.S.E.s even more. Now I'm ever so careful to:
1. Send only my very best poems.
2. Make sure my poems have a a ghost of a chance at that publication. (Next blog will be about that!)
3. Avoid contests, no matter how tempting -- the chance of winning, about 1 in 1000, is too remote.
4. Take long, long breaks in between bouts of sending, sometime six months or a year.
5. Keep working on more, and when those S.A.S.E.s or E-mails come back, curse or cry, feel grossly ashamed of my "arrogance" and "presumption" in thinking the world might want my poems -- and then get over it, and put poems right back in the mail.

See that list of five things? That's my new backbone.

And yesterday: **Good news! ** A long, risky poem, perhaps the longest and riskiest yet, accepted. How long has it been since a poem got accepted? Three years? Five?

Joy? No. Forehead on forearm, and a sigh of Relief.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Emily Dickinson's Computer

Computer was in the shop all weekend; still is. So I had idle moments. Let's download something different, I thought. So I took up the book of Emily Dickinson's poems, the one that's shabby, fingered, nicotine-stained.

Forget YouTube, virtual worlds, et al. . .this blew my circuits:

Like Brooms of Steel
The Snow and Wind
Had swept the Winter Street,
The House was hooked,
the Sun sent out
Faint Deputies of heat--
. . . .(1252)

Her poems -- her metaphors -- her capitalizations, even -- shocked me back to life. I'd forgotten -- I'd forgotten!*@!!&!! what life felt like, and looked like:

They called me to the Window, for
"'Twas Sunset" -- Some one said --
I only saw a Sapphire Farm--
And just a Single Herd--

of Opal Cattle--
. . . . (628)

I do need my computer. But it had encouraged me to settle for "cool" or "informative" or diverting mental "noise," -- no, no~! Mental comfort food! -- & that all that together is not worth one Emily Dickinson poem. Aftershocks went on the next morning in the form of a richer outlook, with sudden (get the pen!) ideas. . .

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Authors, Put Yourself on Amapedia has a new feature called "Amapedia." You can write an encyclopedia-like entry on anything you like, and for us that's books. Others may add to this entry (as with Wikipedia), and you won't get paid but you don't have to pay for the privilege either. Easy:

1. Locate the book of your choice on

2. Scroll down until you find "Product Information for the Amapedia Community."

3. Click on the link that says "Be the First Person to Add an Article" to compose an entry. Or you can add TO an existing entry. Registered users can start writing on the spot.

Amapedia wants facts, not opinions, and they don't want you to "cut and paste" quotations or material from other sites. If you can live with that...

Start with your OWN books or those you love!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Optimist's Club

The St. Louis Publishers Association (SLPA) is a bunch of people who publish and promote their own books. They all get together once a month, a diverse and lively crowd, rainbow of colors, rainbow of ages; and man, for a bunch of writers, are they ever CHEERFUL.

I went to my first meeting in July and liked the energy. They print a catalog of members' books, a great range from homeschooling manuals to fiction or fashion advice ("Dressing Nifty After Fifty" -- why doesn't an NYC publisher snap that up?*). Networking is scheduled before the program begins, and there's a brag session -- anyone who's accomplished or sold anything stands up and tells everyone (it's a packed room) and we all applaud -- sincerely -- and then there's the program: "Promoting Your Books on the Internet" was the last one; the link takes you to part of that program.

I can't see a single reason NOT to join. Yeah, I'm different, I'm literary (there's one other poet I know about); I don't write how-to books (the HECK I don't! Sweatin' blood trying to sell a publisher our group's Writing Group Handbook!!); I want money but have shied away from thinking about how to make some. But I feel so REFRESHED after every meeting. They're so generous! They know stuff! They share what they know! I got people!

*Meanwhile, the author makes money on her book without an NYC publisher taking 8o percent as middleman.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Response to "A Nation of Artists"

Poet Helen Eisen writes:

The information you give us about the T'ang Dynasty reminds me of a wonderful story by Suzette Haden Elgin, "For the Sake of Grace" in the Norton Anthology of Science Fiction, 1993. I first read it in 1969 when it was first published. And I planned (in my fantasies) to read it aloud at a podium as I accepted some grand lifetime achievement award for my own writing, of course on behalf of all women writers the world over. If you've already read the story, or read it now, you'll know what I mean.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

A Nation of Artists

I think the creativity I see all around me is getting to critical mass and we are about to become a nation of artists.

The Internet has its users making their own films, posting their own writings and music and art, organizing and collaborating, and sharing ideas, opinions, and new software. But the Internet is only part of the arts revolution. The postal carrier does crafts; the doctor paints; the street kid makes up poems; the stay-at-home mom does Japanese-style gardening; the teenager designs and sews her own clothes; Grandma writes and publishes her own cookbook.

Somewhere I read that "The M.F.A. is the new M.B.A." and I believe it. Employers used to shun "creative types," thinking them too dreamy or weird to become compliant worker bees. Now these companies are clawing the walls to get creativity.

During the T'ang Dynasty, if a man wanted a high-level job he had to go to the regional capital and take exams. One of the tests was whether he could write a good poem.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

I Gave Up Cleaning and Lived

It isn't like me, but I haven't cleaned house for four months while manuscripts, queries, synopses, proofreading, job, etc. took up all my time. But the cobwebbing doesn't look that bad. And three books got done while I spent March through June lying flat (axing cedar trees, I tore a ligament or something). Vacuuming caused pain. Bending. Opening the oven. Washing sink. Bedmaking. Pulling clothes from washer into dryer. Just sitting up was an ordeal. Sorry, Mom (she's Polish, and the only people scrubbier than the Dutch are the Poles), but I couldn't do anything for longer than 1 minute but write. From the bed I used a wireless keyboard and mouse.

This is the longest time I've ever gone without housecleaning, and the most productive writing time of my life so far. Coincidence? V. Woolf advised writers to "kill the angel in the house." Who knew she meant: "Don't clean"?

I'm mobile and pain-free now, thanks to Laura Self, physical therapist at SSM in Eureka, MO. (When we met she asked agonized, skeletal me if I'd like to sit down. I told her, "Oh, no ma'am. I don't sit.")

Friday, August 31, 2007

Irons in the Fire

I've got three book manuscripts out circulating, which rather takes my mind off the long, ambitious poem I sent to a magazine that may or may not take it, for political reasons (aside from the fact that they might not like it. But I do). Strange that I worry most about the poem, not the books.

It really helped getting my writing group involved in readying the Writing Group book for submission to publishers. One of us photocopied the book outline and sample chapters; two of us split the work of writing customized cover letters for each publisher; I made a spreadsheet to track submissions; someone did stapling and envelope-stuffing; she with the best handwriting addressed them and the SASEs; and finally one of us carried the packages to the post office and got them stamped for going (and returning; but we hope not). Any anxiety about that book -- now titled The Writing Group Handbook -- is divided eight ways. And so it rests lightly on the individual creative soul.

We, and specifically I, have no worries about whether the Writing Group book is good and worthwhile -- we know it is. Eight writers can't be wrong! A poet can never have the same secure feeling about a poem. But that's the price of writing poetry and wanting to publish it. I'll pay it -- but I am glad of having several other irons in the fire, and some writer friends.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Go For Broke

I just put all my eggs in the basket of Writing.

Decided not to return to school to retrain to do something practical.
Decided not to beg and campaign for raises, or go hat in hand to higher-paying employers. (I'm 50. Think I'd get the job?)
Not to go into advertising or public relations.
Not to start my own small business.
Not to punch cash registers or wait tables for the money.
Not to take a second job.
Not to tweak the resume so it won't reveal I write poetry.
Not to send an anguished email to all correspondents saying If You Have Work, Send It to Me, I Need It!
Not to look at 1960s motel-like apartment complexes with tiny cheap small-windowed units and think, "That's where I'll end up when I'm old -- if I don't decide to return to school. . .campaign for raises. . . go into advertising. . . .start my own business. . ."

Now I have no choice but to take Writing and go for broke.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

People Are Basically Good

I know nobody who wants to see a writer fail. In all my writing life, only one person ever elected himself as my sworn enemy. A writer, he actually wasted his energy trying to destroy others he thought were rivals. He did this by fault-finding. Their work lacked this, or lacked that. Moral, intellectual, or esthetic deficiencies: he found them wherever he looked, from the work of the lowliest E Comp student to the life work of the most decorated author.

I suppose his work lacked nothing. I did pay him some mind, and what he said annoyed me; that I recall. But the interesting thing is, ten years later nobody remembers what he wrote, or anything he said besides his catty remarks.

Guess what: He works in public relations now.

Friday, August 17, 2007

I Remember This Girl I Hated

"Mickey," as she called herself (her name was Vivian) just loved to be wide-eyed and creative and stoned, and wear Danskins, and play with her food if someone was watching, and hang scarves from her apartment ceiling, and so forth. This was years ago; if it were today, she'd be designing slow-moving, psychedelic websites. She thought that although I said I was a writer, I was not creative. I lacked a cute haircut, a creative job. I wasn't taking a class in American Sign Language, lived in a basement I didn't bother to decorate.

I said creativity was not a feeling, or at least not necessarily a feeling. Writers create one step at a time, word after word after word, sentence following sentence. Creativity, yes, but sort of through a funnel. Plus some research and training.

She found this distasteful and made a childlike face, wrinkling her nose. If I had been five and not twenty-five, in return I would have stuck my tongue out.

Stoners, fake Buddhists, parlor pinks, and scarf-twirlers -- there they are, shelved in the past, where they stay, and where they belong.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Future of Writing: Read Locally

The latest issue of Creative Nonfiction, #31, is about the Future of Writing.

In the future, says one of the essayists, Astro Teller, huge omnimedia publishers will publish and mass-market seven books a year. People will buy and read them. But readers will be far wiser about the string-pulling and adthink that goes on behind those books. They will want to do a new thing: seek writing directly from the writer, guaranteed no middleman -- the Real Thing, the Genuine Item, pure and honest. It will be "in" to "read locally."

Writers will still want to write and sell one of those seven big bestselling books. There will be more writers, which means more competition. But you won't be looking for an audience; the audience will look for you. Books will rise to the top by choice of the readership, not the publishers. Local will be cool. And with no middleman, you will get 100 percent, not 10 or 15 percent, of what your writing earns.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

On Self-Respect

My book Island Universe: Essays and Entertainments, is done. Yesterday I got the letter from painter Siegbert Hahn of Germany giving permission to use the chosen cover illustration. That was the last piece in the puzzle of putting that book together. I will E-mail the ms. to the publisher Tuesday, when I can get a broadband connection.

Next, a project I almost forgot about -- to arrange my writing group's next book. And when that's done, maybe I'll hear about the manuscript I sent out in mid-June. And then -- how about harvesting some newer poems and putting together a poetry chapbook?

I didn't realize it, but over the years I had just kept writing and writing, sometimes articles and reviews only for the pennies they might bring me, always grumbling and berating myself: "This isn't the best I can do," "Wish I had more time," "It's the deadline, I have to finish now," and "One day I'll do some real writing." Darned if it wasn't all real writing. I'm only seeing that now, and only now respecting myself for doing it. You, of course, will be smarter, and take pride in all the writing that you finish.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Keeping Writers at Arm's Length

I spent December through March querying agents for our writing group's second book. Score zero. Or, better for my mental health, I can say, "I didn't find the agent who wanted us."

We're now sending the book proposal directly to publishers. More than ever, publishers' listings say, "We don't take "un-agented" submissions, or look at unsolicited submissions." No, not even a glance at a two-page book proposal.

It looks as if publishers think they benefit from a setup that keeps them apart from writers. Now, think: Does that make any sense?

Monday, July 30, 2007

I'm A Happy Little Cheat

Adjusting for subject matter and experience, a writer friend of mine, age 62, is as good a poet and essayist as Elizabeth Bishop -- to whom she has been compared. She published a book of poems (having won a competition) in 1991. She has three more books in manuscript. I guarantee you they are stunning. For a decade she sent them to publishers, receiving rejections mainly because they're literary and won't make money. She's worried that when she gets old and dies the manuscripts in her file will be thrown away.

I said to her, "What good are they in your file drawer? How about self-publishing?"

She found this idea distasteful. Self-published books are "not legitimate." But then she complained that a poet friend whose book was accepted three years ago by the "legitimate" LSU Press now hears it is scheduled to come out in 2010.

I said, "The system is broken. We all moan about how the publishing world is insane. We have to do things differently. Look," I said, "a book is a book. If you self-publish at least you'll have a book. It'll have an ISBN so people can find it. You can give it to libraries. You can give it away. Somebody somewhere will read your book."

My friend says it isn't legitimate. She wants to be legitimate more than she wants to publish. And she is getting what she wants.

Me? I'm publishing another book! It's essays this time. I am happy that my illegitimate books get bought and sold, and are in print, and in libraries, and on, and not in my file drawer. I'm a happy little cheat who beat the system.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

I Hope You Know How Cool You Are!

A writer is the world's coolest thing to be. Everyone secretly wants to be a writer.

Scores of people tell me that when they retire they will take up writing. Or they wish they could quit their good-money job and stay home and write. (It looks easy.) I am pretty sure they never will -- because when they ask me how to begin they don't listen when I say, "Start by taking a writing class." They usually talk about where they're going to move so they can write (a place with an ocean view) or how they will panel and decorate their home office. Anyone who wants to do something hungers for information. Anyone who wants to just talk about something talks.

It's true -- you don't have to imagine it: Hundreds of thousands of yuppies and middle managers and deans and real-estate sellers and stockbrokers and lawyers pass their days on earth hoping to summon up the bravery and confidence to be like you.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Sinister Software

There's a bit of software, in your head and mine, that boots itself up

I am finishing two book manuscripts and the software is working right now. I sure don't want to arrange the book (chronological order? thematic? other?) or write up that table of contents and acknowledgements page. I think it'll take up too much paper to print out the manuscript for proofreading. I'm not thinking, "How great it is I've finished a book, or nearly." I'm thinking, "What awful things will people say about me when I publish this book?"

The software kicks in just as you are about to succeed. In fact it signals that success is near. But suddenly you're exhausted or depressed. The world doesn't need another writer. In fact, you need to train for a triathlon. (Note: The world doesn't need another triathlete, either.) You quit your writing group, thinking they don't respect you, they never did. . . It's not writer's block. You can write just fine; you just can't finish.

Don't try to pep-talk or bribe yourself. It won't work. Get help. Ask a friend to help you scout a bookstore for names of likely publishers. Ask a fellow writer for encouragement or to set a deadline. Pay someone to write three query letters for you. Talk to a businessperson about business; this can help you lose your fear of it. Tell a therapist, if you can afford one, that you have written a book you just can't bring yourself to finish.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

River Styx: Theme Issue about Food

Deadline is September 15 for River Styx's theme issue on food, called "A Readable Feast." Send food-related poetry, stories, essays, and art to:

River Styx
A Readable Feast
3547 Olive Street, Suite 107
St. Louis, MO 63103

Tell them The Confident Writer told you! And pass it on.

And remember -- never quit. Keep writing and stock up, and wait for your chances. They will come.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

I Get The Going Rate

Just to let you know: I am getting the rate that I asked for, the going rate! I forced myself to grow up and ask for what I am worth after 30 years of writing and 20 years of college teaching.

Now I see that it was always a matter of growing up. And asking for what I want, and not settling for less. I had to step out of my comfort zone. My old comfort zone was about half the going rate. Isn't that pathetic? But now I am a grownup. A professional who finally asks for and gets paid a professional rate. It's a wildly new feeling. The air I breathe feels different. I have more energy. I have more confidence!

Don't know what to charge for your writing-related services? Consult the chapter "How Much Should I Charge?" that appears in the front matter of every annual Writer's Market. In the 2006 Writer's Market, that chapter begins on page 68.

Whatever your comfort zone is, whether financial or artistic, I urge you to try stepping out of it.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

I'm Booked

Neighbor says: My sister's daughter is having a wedding shower Saturday at the VFW Hall; you will drop in, won't you, and say hello to Marie and give your blessings to the bride?

Writer says: I am booked.

Relative says: I've tried for an hour and I just can't get the inkjet cartridge out or the new one in. And I've got to get this thing printed by tomorrow. You're into computers, right? You can come over tonight, can't you?

Writer says: I am booked.

Dear Writer: You're working on a book, aren't you? (Who isn't?) Then you can confidently say -- when someone tries to railroad you into doing something you didn't promise to do, aren't obliged to do, never agreed to do: "I'm booked."

Your score doubles if you use that time to work on your book for real.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Go Easy On Yourself

I've been fiercely disciplined lately. I'd love to go easy on myself today. So:

I will think highly of myself and my accomplishments. In fact I will list them.

I will finish a piece or leave it unfinished, as I please.

I won't wish I were another writer. I'm who I am, and I'm where I'm at. World, you can just deal with it.

I won't wish I had been born with an Anglo surname. I won't notice that the new issue of Natural Bridge, #17, features six "emerging writers" from around the U.S. Their surnames are: Boyle, Garrett, Fenton, Williams, Kohler, and Merrifield. (This issue was edited by John Dalton, who is a nice guy.)

Just for today, I'll puke up a draft of something new, maybe even something totally "out there," without caring how good it is and where I will publish it and how people may shun me when it's published. I may write as badly as I want, or as badly as I can. (Fun.) How about a poem about a dragon and a princess...

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

If Not Now, When?

"If it's good, it will eventually be published." Tess Gallagher said this to our class twenty years ago. It is true. (Cringe.) Yes, it's true.

I didn't want to wait for "eventually". I mean, Tess published her first book at about age 30, the age I was then. And I didn't want to take a chance that somebody who was somehow incapable of appreciating my work now would find it to be good -- "eventually."

I hate to be patient or advise any other writer to be patient, because they won't be. So I'll say "Have confidence," and "Keep writing."

You believe what you write is good, don't you? That it's literature? If it's good, it's like any other good literature, like Twain or Dickens or Dickinson or Cather or what have you: It'll keep! Have faith that one day you'll know exactly where to send it, or what to do with it, or that someone will ask for it. Keep writing because "eventually" will come. It will surely bring with it requests for other things you've written. "We'd like to see more of your stories -- do you have any?" "I heard you read your poems at ____. Want to do a reading for us?" (And at that reading is an editor, or someone who knows someone who publishes chapbooks, and if your poems are truly good. . .)

If what you write is good, "eventually" will come. So stock up now!

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Who Will Help Me?

Lately I've been consulting horoscopes and swamis, praying to God and wearing crystals, wishing and hoping in all sorts of ways that my writing efforts will soon bring me success. I have just put in five hours on a writing project. I'm surely working hard, can't be faulted on that.

I stopped and looked out the window and thought, "Who will help me?"

The answer I won't accept anymore is, "Nobody will help you; you'll have to work even harder and do it all yourself." Believing in the lone-writer-in-the-tower, man-against-the-world myth almost cost me my sanity. If you believe in it, it can cost you yours. One may write alone, but one can never succeed alone. A writer needs friends, editors, a publisher, and readers, just to get started. Ideally a writer also has a good teacher or a writing group. Then a writer wants acclaim, reviews, invitations, grants, prizes, and opportunities, and those come only through other people.

Well, I've been acting as if I don't know that.

Did I ever tell anybody what my current project is? About nine people know, and those are folks I can't hide it from. It's 95 percent done and I've only let one person read the whole thing.

And the project that follows that one? It's about half done. Two people know about it.

Should I tell more people? But I want to keep these secret! Why?
1. So no one will steal my ideas. And then give them better life than I can. And then get the success that should be mine.
2. In case these projects fail, I won't be embarrassed when I'm asked, "Whatever happened to that thing you were working on?"
3. I'm ashamed in case someone will think these are selfish projects.

Sheesh! What idiotic thinking! Nobody wants to steal from me. These projects won't fail. And calling a writer "selfish" is an old trick to keep the writer from writing. But nobody has actually called me selfish. I'm only worried that they will. Sheesh!

If people don't know what I'm working on because I'm hiding it, how can they encourage me? How can they help me?

They can't!

It's as if I've painted over my own window and am wondering why I can't see the view!

Friday, June 29, 2007


Whenever I read an excellent book I envy the writer. At least momentarily. I think, Gee -- what a mind that author must have. What creativity and perception! What inventiveness, what mastery of the form! Why, it's better than anything I could ever --

STOPPPPPP right there!

There are two cures for writers' envy.

1. Write your own stuff.

2. Decide that whatever that person wrote, you wrote. For example, I admire poet Lucia Perillo. I envy her talent and MacArthur grant. My envy might keep me from writing my own poems ("Oh, what's the use; she's doing it so much better!"). Instead, I tell myself, just for now -- (and I don't tell anyone else) -- "I wrote those poems. We are all one, so I wrote those poems too. And that means I can write more of them."

That way, Ms. Perillo's work becomes my inspiration, not my despair.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Ways to be Part of the Future

Do you write because you want to live forever? You can start on that right now.

1. Write poems? Post a poem or two on the Net at Sure, there are lots of poems on there. Sure, many are junk. But not all of them are. And yours certainly are better than most.

2. Have you published a book? Is it still in print? Every library system has an "acquisitions" librarian. Find the acquisitions page on the library's website and suggest the library acquire your book. You can suggest books for any library system you belong to. Ask your friends in other counties and states to suggest your book to their local and university libraries.

3. Have you written a book? Do you own the electronic rights to it? Can you turn the computer file into a pdf file? If so, you may upload and publish it as an eBook, for free, at People can then visit, and find and download your eBook. You can also download others' books for free. eBooks are the way of the future. Get on the wagon now.

4. Help a young writer, a child or a teen. Just encourage them, no matter what they are writing, to keep on writing things. You know from your own experience that writers of any age can get a lot of mileage out of a few kind words.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Do Real Writers Write Every Day?

It is said that "real writers write every day," but of course that is a myth.

I once was in conference with a famous writer. (It was E. L. Doctorow.) The first thing he asked me was, "Do you write every day?"

I said, "No. I have to work."

His manner changed. I understood that my answer had disqualified me in some fashion; that it proved I was not truly committed, and had no future in the big leagues. The rest of the conference was perfunctory.

I didn't think it was a rude question at the time. I had read, over and over, that some writers were "too lazy" or "not disciplined" if they did not get up two hours earlier in the morning or use their after-work time to write. I tried those things, for about three days each, and couldn't see straight, much less think straight.

"Do you write every day?" E. L. Doctorow is a fine writer. But that question proved he was not a teacher.

Maybe writers who do nothing else can and should write every day, but writers with responsibilities other than writing can get too burnt-out. Tired. Depleted. And if you feel that way -- you are exactly what you feel like!

The following coping idea came from a writer with a full-time job. She tried writing in the evenings, but at best put in a spotty half-hour. The results were not worth her efforts. Weekends had to be spent on housework and errands. So she told herself:

Okay, no writing Monday through Friday. Period. You are not to go near pen and paper on those days. Writing is permitted on the weekends only -- and then only if you feel like it.

The first week she rejoiced in her freedom from the mental burden of "writing every day."

By Friday night of the second week she could hardly wait to get to her computer. She did her housework and schlepping on weeknights, didn't short herself on sleep, and on Saturday and Sunday, rested, she got good chunks of time to sit down and write. She's a real writer.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

How I Asked for the Going Rate

I was surfing on the web one day-- in the merry merry month of June-- and came across this website, based in the UK:

Here one can download, for a 30-day trial, a subliminal messages software program. It flashes messages on the computer screen for two milliseconds -- and these messages are positive, and you can select from pre-loaded messages, or create your own.

Subliminal messages, although you can't really read them, are supposed to be a painless way to imprint the mind, to change thought patterns and behavior. I said, I will try it.

The pre-loaded categories include losing weight, quitting smoking, winning athletic contests, making friends, and so on. I loaded the messages for Self-Esteem, Prosperity, and Success, and also made up my own category, Writing. Each of these categories is stocked with affirmations, which are nothing but wishes put into words. Some affirmations I put in my Writing category are "People tell me my writing is wonderful," "I am well paid for what I write," "I write poems easily and abundantly." Then I started the program. This was five days ago. Honestly, I think it's working.

For example, I was asked to quote a price on an editing job. I asked for the amount I wanted, the going rate: $75 an hour. Normally I lowball it, because it seems like a great deal of money to me, I certainly couldn't afford it, and because one person acted shocked when I had the nerve to ask for that much on a previous occasion. Where did I learn that writers and money don't mix? And what's more, why did I believe that?

I haven't heard the answer yet, but I have this odd sensation of "I'm going to stand firm on this." It's a good sensation!

I do notice when the affirmations flash on the screen -- but can't read them, except very occasionally and from my peripheral vision.

If you stare at your computer screen a lot, and think you could benefit, try it for 30 days. I have noticed no harmful effects. And if I don't get the editing job -- I can use that time for my own writing. Win-win!

Friday, June 22, 2007

Don't Enter Writing Contests: But if you do. . .

To become a confident writer, don't enter writing contests, especially those that charge a fee. Your odds of winning are between 1 in 600 and 1 in 1200. If you like gambling, take that money and bet on a horse.

Where did I get those numbers? From editors who run writing contests for poetry, fiction, nonfiction, flash fiction, first books, and chapbooks.

Confident writers don't need to enter contests to prove themselves or impress other people. Save your time for improving your writing, maybe trying something new. Save your money for something you know you can get, like a better computer. Even if you did win, there are so many contests that no individual prize is worth much. The only prizes really worth having are those people nominate you for, and they nominate on the basis of good writing.

But, if you must discourage and hurt yourself by entering a "contest," here's some inside information if you want to almost win:

Poems: For local and regional contests, send poems about trees and flowers, and the seasons; if you have a "snow globe"poem or a patriotic poem, you might place. For a contest run by a literary journal, send a poem that berates yourself for living in North America while the rest of the world suffers.

Short fiction: Send stories about the lives of middle-class white professionals, particularly writers, editors, or teachers, and their relationships and sexual problems; be sure to mention their yoga class.

Flash fiction: The overall message of your flash fiction should be that "life is degrading" and the tone should be rueful. A little girl should appear as a character.

Essays: Use an exotic locale. Africa and Asia are preferred.

The above tips may double your chances, to about 1 in 300 and 1 in 600. Sound like odds you can handle?

For writers who believe they are above the odds, and entitled to win a prize because they have published or have an M.F.A.:

Things that Contest Judges Hate Right Now: Anything Midwestern; humorous or satirical poetry; work with a feminist outlook; fiction or essays about the blue-collar world or working women; anything that hints that digital technology is good; lesbians.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Green Light for Creative Writers

EXERCISE: 1. Close your eyes and picture a traffic light, any type you want. 2. Make the light turn green. 3. Hold the picture of the green traffic light in your mind. Try to hold the picture for at least 15 seconds. 4. Picture the green traffic light whenever you think or hear stuff like this:

"I can't get an agent" "Writers never make money" "Nobody wants the kind of stuff I write" "Artists are doomed to be outsiders" "I wish I'd been born with another talent"

Gently, shine the green light on these thoughts. You have a green light to write -- whatever you want -- and be great.

Having trouble picturing a green light? Draw a traffic light. Draw rays coming out of the green lamp.

Every time you see a green light, no matter where you are, tell yourself, "That's the green light for my writing."