Saturday, October 25, 2008

Writers' Agonies, Volume 1, Chapter 1

As a writer, I maintain certain unexamined assumptions I do not wish to examine at all. To wit:

1. Words are the whole world.
2. All words are equal.

These assumptions mean I agonize not only over my own work, but at scarifying length over all words ever spoken or written to me. I can spin up whole rainbows of agony out of a lone "Sorry" scrawled on a rejection slip, and fury, too, because whoever wrote it doesn't seem really sorry! I can't seem to weigh and sort words according to their source or context or tone. Some people say that words are mere hot air, or can be ignored! Not I! To me, all words are serious! You can imagine how I fare in a culture that is jerry-built on kidding and banter. For example:

Hi there, Eagle Beak!

Eagle Beak?

It's a joke! Just a joke! (Punches ME on the arm.) Can't you take a joke?

(Looks daggers.)

Ha, ha! I was just kidding. (Pounds ME on the arm repeatedly.) Geez!

You're a f-----g a--hole.

A-ha, ha, ha!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

It's Who(m) You Know

I've just ended my two weeks' vacation from my day job and now fully understand the importance of "It's who you know."

During vacation I contacted many people I promised one day "to have coffee with" and did so. Mostly writer friends and acquaintances. We had wonderful conversations. My friendships feel more intimate and stabilized, and life feels more balanced -- I'm not totally at the mercy of my struggles with writing and publishing. I've got people!

Normally I spend vacations drafting new work. This time I chose differently. I am a better and more sensible person for cultivating mutual affection and camaraderie.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Book the Poet Wants

A publisher kept my friend's poetry-book manuscript for 14 months before finally rejecting it with the comment, "This needs to be cooked down."

In other words, condensed. Shortened.

The poet then for the umpteenth time changed and rearranged the ms. -- product of 11 years of effort -- and "cooked it down." It's not necessarily better. But it's thinner.

Publishers are free to reject any manuscript. Editors can and should pinpoint weak or oafish poems. But "cook down" a manuscript? Why? Is it too long? Too luxuriant? Why do poetry books have to be so thin? Will "cooking it down" better please the readership and generate profitable sales? Unlikely. The publisher won't market the book -- that's the author's job -- so it's not a matter of marketability, either.

A poet's manuscript is as carefully crafted as any poem. Selecting, sifting and arranging -- editing one's own poetry book -- is the work of months. Do editors know that? If so, they might respect it -- and the fact that no one can know better than the poet how a long a ms. should be or how it should go.

So what is this "cook it down" unless it's another needle to stick into the poet, whose soul is already bristling with needles and knife handles?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Eating and Living Like a Writer, Part 1

Living on nothing as we writers tend to do I have some tips for all the other, more normal people who now find themselves financially at sea:

-Make your own "meat." One cup of vital wheat gluten makes 1 lb of "ground beef" in less time than it takes to go to the store and buy it. With a bit more effort, I make convincing "barbecue" and fried "chicken."
-Substitute Velveeta for cheddar, or learn to make "cheesy" sauce out of cheap ingredients like a potato and a carrot. You'll find such recipes in vegan cookbooks. You'll learn some real neat "substitution" tricks in them, and you don't have to be a vegan to use 'em.
-Shop ethnic markets for reasonable deals. Their regular customers won't stand for price-gouging.
-Don't dine out, or go to cute coffee places that sell individual cookies for, like, $2.25.
-Don't order in. No pizza is worth $17.
-Read magazines in the library.
-Pack your lunch. Because I work 10 to 6, most days I pack lunch AND dinner.
-Buy corn tortillas; a stack of 36 is insanely cheap, good for you, and you can do 1000 things with them for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.
-Attend free events, such as literary readings. Sorry, but you will just have to miss Joan Baez.
-Eat more bean-and-grain dishes and potato dishes, meanwhile telling yourself it's glamorously South American.
-Close off the rooms you don't use much. (Why do you have rooms you don't use?)
-An electric blanket is essential.
-Be aware that your car has a 13+-gallon tank and that keeping it filled adds lots of extra weight.

Eating and Living Like a Writer, Part 2

Tips for the nouveau poor who are now being forced to join all of us writers in the proverbial "same boat":

-Substitute vinegar-and-water, mixed 50-50, for most cleaning liquids and supplies; and what that won't clean/deodorize, baking soda will.
-If you need household goods, buy second-hand.
-Because you're living like a writer, you'll be losing two or three sizes. New business suits, brand-new with tags, can be bought for as low as $35 on eBay.
-Having less body means you can quit the gym and do exercise DVDs at home.
-Have shoes and leather items repaired.
-Have a yard sale or block sale.
-You are lovely just as you are and don't need night creams, manicures, Botox, spas, or bling.
-Do everything possible to avoid dry cleaning.
-Nowadays it's either fine wines or your kid's tuition. Which is it?
-Make a goal of going to the grocery store only once per month.
-Call the 1-800 number of every company that sends you catalogs and have them take you off their mailing lists.
-Use a phone card to make long-distance calls. I really save with that one.
-My cellphone is for emergencies only. Nobody has the number. I pay $10 a month for it.
-Edible pets are fashion-forward. It's dreadful but true.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Yes, I Knew Hayden Carruth

Poet Hayden Carruth died Oct. 1 at age 87. Fact is he almost died during the time I was at Syracuse (1986-88), where he taught for many years; a suicide attempt. My sharpest memories of him were 1) the foul look he gave me when I asked for admission into his "Mystery and Expressiveness" poetry class -- filled to capacity except for the much smarter, very young man who came in right behind me and gushed about how much he loved old jazz records -- and 2) his compliment on my lemon-poppyseed cake and 3) when he praised me after a reading for having written political poems.

But personality doesn't matter. Neither does memory. Only the writing counts. (I'd almost believe that, except that I don't see many cranky 67-year-old female poets, except maybe Adrienne Rich, teaching in creative writing programs.) I note Carruth's passing because I read his book The Sleeping Beauty -- and therein found a shape for the poetry book I wrote a year after I left the Syracuse writing program.

Hayden had a great deal of talent and a hard youth, including being fired after a year (1949-50) as the editor of Poetry. Mood-disordered and alcoholic off and on, at age 67 he looked frail and watery-eyed, but was not too old to pull rank or to affect the smugness of the white jazz aficionado who thinks his LP collection means he's less white. Female writers made him impatient. He preferred women as Muses. How ironic it must have seemed to him to be the last one left standing after his contemporaries -- Lowell, Berryman, et. al -- either killed themselves or died trying.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Where to Get Good Advice About Your Writing

-your writing group.
-your writing teacher or former writing teacher.
-a writing workshop, course or critique group (online is fine).
-a classmate from one of your writing courses, past or present.
-a professional writer or editor whose credentials and references you have thoroughly
-a peer whose writing and moral character have earned your respect.
-a mature and well-read platonic friend whom you know will not fail to give you an honest opinion.
-books and handbooks for writers.
. . .Or any combination of the above. If you are unsatisfied or made uneasy by a response, do your mental health a favor and get a second opinion.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

For Bad Advice About Your Writing, Just Ask

-any relative or in-law.
-your lover.
-a roommate or neighbor.
-your pastor.
-your landlord.
-anyone who is a model for a character in your short story or novel.
-anyone mentioned in your nonfiction.
-anyone who “wants to write” but never did.
-a former writer or blocked writer.
-any professor, except a creative-writing professor. (A literature professor will dig up and show you the creative writing he did while in college, and point out how it is superior to yours. Think I'm joking? I've had that happen to me TWICE.)
-anyone who tries to shrug off your request.
-a famous person, writer or not. If he's a writer, he's too busy writing to give advice. If he's not a writer, why ask him?
-a substance abuser, including hip and stylish marijuana smokers.
-anyone who works for you.
-anyone who fawns or is thrilled to pieces to be asked to read your manuscript.
-someone not yet of legal age.
-someone you’ve just met.
-someone you want to impress.
-anyone who jokes that he or she should get a percentage of the proceeds when you sell the manuscript.
-an “agent” you’ve found on the Internet who requires you to pay a “reading fee.”
-anyone you secretly think is conceited or a pest.
-anyone who asks to be paid with something other than money.

NEXT: Where to get good advice.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Objections to the Workshop Method

While the classic "writing workshop" peer-critique method is used widely and successfully, it has its detractors. Objections to this classic workshop model include those listed below:

  • Asking the writer to stay silent and listen during discussion of her work is a form of oppression.
    Maybe that’s true. If you think so, try "reverse workshop" variations: Have the writer speak for 10 minutes about the work in question while everyone else listens. Or have everyone write out one question for the writer, hand the questions to the writer, and let her read aloud and answer the questions.

  • A workshop is really a kind of peer pressure for everyone to “dumb down” their writing and make it bland and politically correct.
    Caving in to “peer pressure” is a choice. Those who will do it merely to get praise and acceptance are either overdependent on praise or are in the wrong workshop.

  • The group-workshop process homogenizes people’s writing styles, and/or destroys their originality.
    You were born unique, and have unique things to say, but originality, like wisdom, develops over time, and once developed it cannot be destroyed. Associations among artists do not automatically lead to compromise. Take for example writer Gertrude Stein and her salon, or the works of painters such as Picasso, Kandinsky, or Klee, whose works became more original and radical as they matured. If in your workshop you aren’t being encouraged and challenged to do yourself one better, you are in the wrong group.

  • Writing workshops aren’t for everybody.
    That’s true, especially for young writers, under age 18. They should avoid workshops unless they are held in a school and moderated by a helpful and sympathetic teacher. Young people’s creative experiments should be shielded from the remarks and reactions of careless peers, or adults who hold standards that are anti-creative or punishingly high.

  • A workshop is basically a bunch of bad writers sitting around reading each other’s bad writing. Therefore it can be of no help to anyone.
    Let’s pretend that’s true. If so, the only thing a writer could ever get out of a workshop is seeing what other writers do badly. And that by itself is an absolutely priceless lesson for any writer. This “basically a bunch of bad writers” remark came from a celebrated writer famously incapable of editing his own writing. He sent editors manuscripts thousands of words longer than the editors had asked for or could possibly publish. The editors were forced to craft and finalize his manuscripts by cutting excesses and repetitions. Such extensive editing annoyed the writer, but he had never learned to see his work as a reader might see it, and therefore had to cede to editors the power he should have wielded over his own writing. The ability to assess and craft one’s own work is precisely the power that develops most rapidly in a workshop setting.