Archive | The Writing Life RSS feed for this section

Spring Blooms! Tulips, Irises, Penny Guisinger

13 Jun

When I need color most, Maine blooms. And reminds me of a local master of very short prose.

I continue to despair over our ongoing national catastrophe. At the end of April I hit the year mark on a difficult and painful family episode that will continue to unfold, no good news in sight. I’m gritting my teeth through a dry spell in writing life accomplishments—all writerly things I control are in a state of unruly, uncertain making, and those deeply important things I do NOT control aren’t breaking my way. In short: I’m in a funk. Which made me slip quietly away from this blog, social media, much of my usual routine.

As May opened up, I couldn’t see the end of my fog, so I did a lot of sighing and frowning (and, um, ill-advised eating) and kept my head down. Then one morning I looked out my bedroom window to see the first handful of tulip blooms—bright yellow and a shy blush of soft coral-pink. I thought, “Hello and thank you and aren’t you gorgeous.” Then: “Where’s that little book I bought at that workshop…??”

In March, when I and the tulips were still pushing through the final weeks of Maine’s winter, I took a workshop, offered through the Maine Writers and Publishers Association, on writing flash creative nonfiction. I had signed up for it on a whim. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing personal essay or memoir, but I’ve never known how to make a start. I didn’t expect marching orders from a 4-hour session, but if I could buy myself a bit of inspiration in a genre I know little about, that would be well worth the fee.

I’m a scalp-to-toes introvert, which means when I have a morning appointment, I tend to wake up grumpy and get mad while I get ready, and that day was no exception. I do my best to put on a good face and bring the good will when I get there. Fortunately, Penny Guisinger swept into the room in a spirit of cheerfulness and warmth, jokingly complaining about the lack of coffee and the frigid morning, all down-to-earth, approachable, big smile, we’re all just writers, here. I more than got my money’s worth. In fact I did leave with the genesis of marching orders. And something else: Her lovely chapbook of vignettes, Postcards from Here, published by Vine Leaves Press.

Over these last four or five weeks, I’ve rested my worries while pulling weeds around the early, middle, and late spring tulips, then tidying the beds of exploding bearded irises, then bringing the same attention to the delicate unfurling of Siberian irises and baptisia—thrilling me by blooming exactly together, as I’d hoped. And most days I followed up the calm earned in sweat with a few moments of the quiet wonder that comes of reading Guisinger’s tiny, beautiful things.

Blooms are short-lived, so you must feast on them. All day throughout spring and summer, whether outdoors or sitting by a window, my eyes are set on “gobble.” Guisinger’s prose, however, should be tasted. Savored in the small bites she’s plated on every page. Which is how her little book has kept me in such good company through these weeks of mental stillness.

IrisbaptisiaI’m welcoming myself back to the writing life today, a strangely hot Maine Tuesday, bad news still raging nation- and world-wide, family still finding its feet, the last two tiny plots of late tulips shedding their petals just yesterday. Thanks to mother nature’s insistence on pretty, frilly things, and a shining chapbook of word-presents, I’m on the path.

I’ll bring back the Daily Shorty words “Fiction Friday” next week when I review Guisinger’s book. Happy spring-almost-summer, Everyone.

.

Spotlighting Rejection Letters

13 Mar

It’s Market Monday and I’m wondering how you’re dealing with the inevitable rejection that accompanies the work of submissions.

I can’t lie to you. Somehow the fact that it’s Market Monday escaped me entirely until a half-hour ago. I thought about it yesterday, and it’s on the damn calendar, so how exactly did that happen? I think it’s because I’m pushing hard on submissions this month, but these last few days I’ve been in one of my little spirit-dips, when I focus a lot on the rejections I’m getting. Reader, I’m moping. And I’m distracted.

So in honor of my own demons, and because I assume you have similar ones, on Market Monday I’m going to absolve myself of the duty to spotlight a market, and instead I’m spotlighting the rejection letters I receive from all these magazines I’m recommending. I hope this means neither one of us need think about rejection at all, for, oh, at least another week.

* * *

Some of my writer friends love the No, but rejection letter. No, we don’t want to publish your story, but it’s strong writing and we wish you luck placing it elsewhere. No, your story isn’t a good fit for our magazine, but we enjoyed reading it, and thank you for thinking of us. No, this story doesn’t quite work for us, but please submit again. This last is the best No, but. And it’s the one I hate the most.

I went to a talk on how to manage the submissions process when I was getting my MFA. I learned that I should be delighted whenever a rejection includes a personal note. And a rejection obviously composed entirely for you? That’s gold. It means you’re almost there. If a magazine suggests you send more work, you’re a fool if you don’t. Which means I’ve been a fool many times over.

I would like to be a fan of the No, but. My No, but friends are smarter than I am, more big-hearted. My small mind would much rather read, “I just don’t get you,” rather than, “I get you… I just don’t want you.”

Other friends like the No, because. No, we have decided to decline your story, because it has a darker tone than we’re aiming for. Because to us it feels unfinished. Because we’ve published too many stories with park rangers in the last year. My No, because friends like having a solid reason for the rejection, and feel the because can actually help them re-think their work. That’s sweet.

I’ve only received two No, because rejections and they pissed me off. Just like you, Editor, don’t want me to explain my story in my cover letter, I don’t need to hear your thoughts about what does and doesn’t work in my story. It’s condescending. Or… not. It’s not, of course. It’s an editor wanting to write a letter that doesn’t feel so goddamned arbitrary, and it comes from a warm spot in that editor’s heart, and I so wish I could properly appreciate that. But I leave appreciation to my No, because friends.

Me, I’m a “Because I said so” kinda gal. I was raised well before the term “helicopter parents” was invented, in an era when parents expected you to do what they said because otherwise, where are you going to sleep? Who’s going to feed you? My parents never insisted they were right about any particular question about my behavior, they never won an argument by insisting they knew better. They simply lorded it over me and my siblings with their pure authority over little things like breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Which means I was always free to think whatever I pleased, I just needed to behave a certain way when in sight.

Whatever you think of this as a parenting philosophy, it seems to me the perfect editorial stance for a rejection. I’m not saying your story isn’t genius. I’m saying I didn’t understand or enjoy it. Done. There are so many publications I neither understand nor enjoy. So I get that. It’s a matter of personal taste. And you, Editor, happen to own the key to the lock on the front door, so yours is the taste that matters just now. I can live with that.

All of which is to say that I feel the least distressed by a rejection that comes as a plain, polite, No, full stop. Which is dumb. Because it means the editor had zero interest in my work and wants to ensure I don’t sense a molecule of encouragement in her letter, because if I do, good god, she might have to read something else I’ve written. Why would I prefer to see THAT in my inbox? Because a woman who reviews rejections, e-mails her friends about them, categorizes them, writes about them… is a woman who takes rejection way too seriously. And personally.

Yeah, but so what. Every age of my life seems to come with a great gift. In middle age I’m letting go of worrying so much about how I feel. Whether it’s justified, whether it’s sensible, whether it’s constructive or destructive. How I feel is how I feel, and I’ve got too much yard work and too many Chopped episodes, and, yes, too many stories to revise and submit, to waste time worrying about it. So if a No, but and a No, because make me mope, fine. Because moping requires a pause. And categorizing rejections requires close attention.

A No, full stop doesn’t bother me, so it doesn’t slow me down. Which is great, because how many times do I need to get a No, full stop before I stop trying the same magazine? Typically twice, sometimes three times, if it’s a sterling favorite. But a No, because, that’s more information I can use. Maybe, given what I now know, this magazine is the right home for a couple of stories I hadn’t before considered right for them. And a No, but, that’s screaming for more attention. When I said I’ve ignored the call for more work many times over, I was talking about habits well in the past.

In short, moping and categorizing do tend to focus the (rejected) mind on where I should send my next submission. I dearly hate a No, but. The whole damn time I’m selecting the next story I’m going to send to that editor, I’m just hating it.

I was asked recently for submissions advice by two beginning writer friends who have never submitted their work. Write this down, I said. If you see something personal, that’s gold. And if they ask you to send more work? Well, you’re a fool if you don’t.

.

Why We Write

1 Jan

Or: Why a pan of black beans is like burnt orange toile is like a poem. And why we need them all.

photo-2

Textile art by my friend Patty (using my Daily Shorty method).

Not too long ago, I spent an afternoon cooking a meal for friends struggling with a very painful loss. I was reeling from the news myself, which I’d received the evening before. The only thing I know to do for someone in pain, besides listen, is to feed them. So I went through my pantry, came up with a dish I could make, and started cooking.

As I tasted the black beans that were an element of the dish, as I added a little heat, some acid, a bit of floral sweet, my breathless anger—why should they have to endure this?—settled into a quiet, productive sadness. I could think past the awfulness. I could ask myself: What will feed them well?

WhatBindsUs.jpg

My friend Cheryl made this.*

Because I was making something, and because I had to call on what I know of flavor and texture to build it from scratch, I was, in those hours, more whole than I had been since receiving the news. Because I was being creative, I could shift my energy from the horror, and focus instead on what could be done. I could focus on their need and try to fill one small piece of it.

Around the same time, another friend was mourning the loss of her mother, a troubled woman who had lived more than her share of pains. They had a complicated relationship, and part of her grief has consisted of processing that relationship. As she does that, she reminds herself to focus on the things she admired about her mother, including her skill at sewing and making crafts. She told me about the fabrics her mother had stored in her basement sewing space, a staggering range of colors and designs, everything from plain white cotton to orange toile to extravagant prints.

bethscard

My friend Beth made this beautiful card.

When my friend’s mother was making things, she seemed to come into a self that wasn’t weighted by years of grief and disappointment. She wasn’t wracked with resentment and anger at a world that had not treated her well. When she was at her sewing machine, she was, simply, more whole. And by gifting the things she made to her daughters and grandchildren, to neighbors and friends, she made them more whole.

Writing, cooking, sewing. My brother tells me he loves to forge iron and fire cannons—WHAT?? Okay, add metalwork to my list, add a blast of smoke and fire, and note my sister’s needlework, a close friend’s beautiful handmade cards. We all need to make things, to be creative. Gardening, tinkering with an old car, reinventing old furniture (my mother-in-law’s latest specialty). Even crafting an e-mail has calmed my spirit, shown me a more glittering truth.

xstitch

My sister stitched this 20 years ago.

This is not news. To be creative is part of being human, we know this. But I’m not sure we always understand that to plant a new row of Queen of Night tulips adds to our wholeness, or to fire a cannon makes life feel that one instant less short. That to spend an hour making cards is an act of mental health. And generosity.

It sounds so lofty to say—as I have many times—that writers write to make ourselves more whole. Or maybe I mean it sounds pretentious. But I’m just saying what we all know already. To be whole we must make things. We confused, distracted humans need and love both attention and intention. So my wish for us all in 2017, writers and non-writers alike? Less worry, more action. Less news, more connection. Less spending, more making.

Dig in. Stop time while you cut a strip of pretty paper or hold a piece of metal over a fire, when you discover that exactly right line-break and groove on the white space. Make a story a poem a pair of mittens a birthday card a Christmas ornament a pan of lasagna. Make something. And then share it.

 

*You can pre-order Cheryl Wilder’s chapbook What Binds Us here.

My Published Stories

11 Dec

096

.
This image best represents the way I feel when a magazine accepts a story. The chance to share my work with people who would never otherwise see it… well. That’s a gift.

I’ve finally created a page here at Daily Shorty noting the title and first line or two of each published story, as well as the name of the publication that put me in print. When the full story is available online, I’ve linked to it.

Now back to the writing trenches….

Practice Grace AND Confidence

7 Dec

Writers! It only now occurs to me that practicing grace is an act of self-confidence. As writers who spend so much time alone with our words, we need a lot of both.

Fellow Maine writer Karen Maffeo Creamer blogs today about how to be graceful in response to one of the many small (and large) cuts we writers suffer.* Her story reminded me of a cut I once received—a very slight one, yet it felt like a shiv to the kidney.

0815161140b

If I had the confidence my Willa finds between her toes, I’d be set for life.

Newly minted MFAers are told to expect a good two years before publication. I was ecstatic when nine months after graduation, a highly respected literary magazine accepted my story (but I would pay the rest of my time-dues and then some, before fate smiled again). I shrieked and threw my hands up when I saw the e-mail, then ran outside to my husband’s waiting car—by coincidence, he was on his way to pick me up for something when I got the acceptance—shouting as I bounded down the outside stairs of our apartment building, at first alarming the poor husband. That high lasted for weeks, and that publication was an extremely important piece of early validation. Which made the knife months later hurt that much more.

“Your piece came so close,” the gentle rejection read. “Unfortunately, it’s just not quite right for us.” They wished me luck with the story and invited me to submit again. And by “they” I mean the very same magazine, and by “the story” I mean the very same story that had in fact been published already and was living in its colorful, shiny, pristine package on one of my book shelves. Yep. The same story was both accepted and rejected, both published and gently pushed away, by editors at the same publication.

0823161909

She doesn’t exactly embody grace, but I can’t post a pic of Willa and NOT one of my Tillie.

A more confident me would have laughed, felt embarrassed for the magazine’s overworked staff, and notified them of the mistake in hopes they would discover what went wrong with their review process before doing something like this to another author. The me of the time signed into the magazine’s submissions log to stare at the title of my published story with a big fat “Declined” next to it.

I would like to say that this bothered me only for a couple of days. I would like to say I never signed into that database again to stare at “Declined.” I would like to be an accomplished pianist, a retired prima ballerina, and a singer known best for my a capella performances.

Fortunately, I am lately bored by my own reflections on why I take things on the chin when I don’t have to, why I can’t laugh at the Universe’s jokes—the same story, the same magazine, “just not quite right” while it sits on my shelf—so rather than spraying more words about this incident, I will instead appreciate Karen’s reminder that Grace is the writer’s friend, and Confidence is properly measured by the good work we do, not by the one person who said No to it… OR the one who said Yes.
.
.
.
*Karen’s doing an author talk and book signing in York on Tuesday, December 13, so please drop by if you’re in the area, details here.

Election Dejection: Writing Cure

5 Dec

It’s been precisely four weeks, now, and I’m not over it. I don’t think anyone should get over it, but that’s a topic for another place.* No, I’m not over it, but I would prefer to be animated and productive while I shake with anger and fear, rather than depressed and dithering.

One day too soon, Reader, you and I might be fighting in the streets with sharpened spoons over a can of tuna we can’t open. Until that day, let’s put our heads down and do the work we were made for. And let’s do it together.

letterThis past week, I put together a chapbook of micros and flashes for Rose Metal Press’s annual chapbook contest. This weekend I found a few other such opportunites I might pursue in the coming weeks, and thought to share them here, in case you write very short as well, or have writer friends who do. Note that you must check websites very carefully for current information if you wish to submit—my list is merely your first road sign.

It has never been more important to work, and to build community. I have just one superpower: Words. And I have only one writing home to share. Come back anytime.
.
.
*Next day update: Mary Lou Bagley pointed me to this article by Quaker Parker J. Palmer, which makes the only good case I know for getting over it: Get over it so you can get on with it. Well… yes.

Not writing? Take an ice bath.

27 May
A clip from Podio.com's infographic,

A clip from Podio.com’s infographic, “The Daily Routines of Famous Creative People.” *

Have you seen Podio.com’s infographic breaking down the daily routines of some much-admired creative people? I stared at it for at least ten minutes, trying to divine color-coded inspiration from all those rectangles. But all I see is a collage of the banal–John Milton spent a chunk of every day walking in his garden–with a bit of the bizarre for spice. Did I need to know that Victor Hugo’s daily breakfast consisted of 2 raw eggs and coffee? Is that going to inspire me to keyboard magnificence?

Books are always my go-to place for guidance, so when I started writing with serious attention, I read an armload of books about writing. And what I realized as I slogged through chapters on how to set up a creative space in my home, or how to access my dreamscape (my WHATscape??) was that of course I wasn’t reading about writing at all. I was reading about some of the things that some writers do. And the more I fretted over where my writing space should be and what inspirational quote I should tape to my bathroom mirror, the less I wrote.

It’s natural to want guidance from those who have succeeded in the same art you’re called to do. And even through all those boxes of color, that guidance comes through, it’s just both obvious and boring. We’d rather know that Kafka had trouble sleeping (big surprise) and Auden fueled his writing with Benzadrine. We can savor those little treats, we can pass them along in conversations about writing. But the real take-away from that graphic is something we know already. Just look at all that pink. That’s the color marking the time these lovely creative people were working on their art. If you want to be a productive writer, you need to make the time to do it. And you need to do that almost every day. Damn.

My year continues to slap me with unexpected challenges–medical concerns, domestic issues, and a host of good friends suffering terrible loss. I should have written through it all, but I haven’t. Do you think if I take an ice bath on the roof, that will help? Worked for old raw-egg Hugo.

I have written about this before and surely I will write about it again, because when a lesson is hard, when I don’t like it, I just have to keep re-learning it: There is no map. There is no checklist. No perfect routine, no ideal creative space. There is only me, my addled brain, and a keyboard or pen. And always–ALWAYS–yet another opportunity to start again.
.


* Image here, full infographic here.

Writing Revelation

5 Mar
Cynthia's foot.

Cynthia’s summer foot.

In the spirit of my friend and former colleague Cynthia Newberry Martin’s current writing project, here’s one true thing about me: I detest baby showers.

Cynthia’s year-long writing challenge is such a terrific idea that I’m almost jealous I didn’t think of it for myself. Almost, but not quite, because I’m enjoying her work far too much to let it be tainted by anything negative. Her project is as simple as it is rich: She’s sharing one true thing about herself every day for a year at her blog Catching Days, where she also blogs about books, shares thoughts about the (mostly novel-) writing process, and posts an in-depth “a day in the writing life” piece about a different writer every month. Sometimes a “true things” post is just a line or two, other times she writes a mini-essay. All are good reads. Here’s the contents page for the project.

And here’s another revelation: I am incapable of telling the truth if you ask me about your new haircut and I don’t like it. You can say all you want that I should be honest and that you really want, even need, my opinion. I will nod and say of course and smile and lie my ass off. And you will believe me. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this.

You must and WILL submit!

4 Mar

Just in time for the big build-up to spring, I have declared Re-Orientation Time. To the writing life, that is. Join me?

Re-orienting to the writing life means getting submissions out. This is the perennially painful duty that I and all my writing friends complain about. Through the years I’ve experimented with various ways of making submissions less painful, and one that works well for nerdy me is to think of the whole complex of tasks we call “submitting” as a kind of game–a role-playing, problem-solving game with its own rewards entirely apart from the outcome of each submission.

WuerfelCharacter: 21st Century Writer.

Outfit: Your favorite sweater, comfy jeans, lucky socks.

Tools: A laptop / Notebook / iPad. A scruffy, spiral-bound, PAPER notebook with a blot-ey pen shoved into the spiral. A favorite book. Lumbar support. Snacks, both salty and sweet.

Primary Task: Find one good (and currently open) market for your finished story and submit to that market. Depending on the kind of submitter you are, you might need to create a chart in Word before you can choose that market, or make an inky list in your spiral notebook. If your eyes go blurry, rest them on that favorite book, the one that reminds you why you’re called, today, to ask an editor to consider your 2400-word story about the people passing through a flower garden, or 7500-word essay on the apron your grandmother passed to you, skipping your resentful mother. Remember that you don’t offer work to the world because PEOPLE NEED IT. You offer it because you are more whole when you write, and even more whole again when you share what you have written. That is ALWAYS enough reason to submit. ALWAYS. Plus: SOMEBODY NEEDS IT.

Secondary Task: School your brain to ignore the fact that you have always known the word “submission” to mean the act of bowing to someone else’s will. Your brain fixates on this meaning and makes you feel nervous and small, even pitiful, when you’re offering up that story or essay or poem. But the absurdly bold act of submitting your work makes you a pirate, a warrior, or maybe just a really nice person who wants to make meaning and then share it. In this context, “submission” means “gift.” Now give the brain a snack.

Rewards for Completing Tasks: Snacks, obviously, both salty and sweet. Also 3 points for Participation, 2 points for Confidence. Bonus reward: An entertaining and commiserating e-mail exchange (or Facebook status update parade) about your submission session with a writer friend or friends, initiated by newly participating and more confident you.

50 points gets you a meal at your favorite restaurant OR a new book OR an ice cream cone OR a new pair of socks OR [fill in the treat of your choice].

Good luck! Oh, and if you’re the kind of submitter who considers a magazine’s prestige as a factor when choosing a market–I am sometimes that kind of submitter, sometimes not–then you might want to use this list of ranked magazines, put together by writer Clifford Garstang, as one of your guides. (Hat tip to my friend Cheryl Wilder.)

*Picture (cropped) from Wikimedia Commons, here.

Back in with Both Feet

3 Mar

289px-Oscar_Wilde_portrait_by_Napoleon_Sarony_-_albumenWell THAT was a long break!

Oscar Wilde said, “One’s real life is so often the life that one doesn’t lead.” Because I didn’t write much in 2014, I could say it was a year in which I didn’t live my “real life.” But that would be claiming a kind of writerly angst I don’t feel. True, it wasn’t a banner year for productivity, and 2015, so far, has been so stuffed with other concerns that I hardly know what it feels like, just now, to settle into a sentence meant to be shared. Just give me a moment.

It feels great! The keyboard is warm, the keys silky smooth. Particularly the N, E, and D, so worn that when I look at them now I see starbursts of jagged silver-gray, rather than the tidy, type-written white letter on black. L, C, and M aren’t far behind. Oh, the joy of thinking on the virtual page, the sublime joining of silent words to faint tap-tapping of fingers to this pretty font on a pale background.

Writing, I am happy to say—whether meant for sharing or not—is the same as it ever was: My one small miracle.

And now to reorient to the writing life in 2015.

.


*Photo from Wikimedia Commons, here.

Blog Tour: My Writing Process

9 Mar

Lately words are making me feel old. Soon enough “answering machine” will make no sense to people, “carbon copy” is probably all but lost, and “pencil it in” is likely cruising into oblivion very soon as well. With little effort anyone over the age of 30 can produce a dozen more recently retired expressions, then rattle off a series of new words that fall neatly into the gaps. My latest acquisitions: listicle, selfie, and blog tour. Yes, I know, I’m slow on the uptake. That makes me feel old, too, but I can moan about that with the husband. For now I should get on with the tour.

I’m honored to have been invited by my dear (and dearly gifted) friend Suzanne Farrell Smith to talk about my writing process as part of a tour of writers’ blogs (a trip to Google will fetch a slew of the tour’s wonderful posts). Suzanne’s post is so rich that I wasn’t sure why I should add my own thoughts to the tour, but then I remembered the reason I started this blog: To share. To share my enthusiasm for short stories, my energy for writing, and whatever advice or inspiration could be lifted from the documentation of my Daily Shorty year and ongoing writerly thoughts and obsessions. I’m just here to share. So off I go with a smallish splat of Q & A.

1)        What am I working on?

In recent weeks I’ve devoted most of my writerly energy to putting together my first short story collection. I’ve been amazed at how hard it is to select from my files the stories that truly go together, and then to discover the best arrangement of the selections.

I developed my current (tentative) manuscript using index cards, each bearing a story title and notes on voice, length, form, themes, and arresting images and phrases. As I arranged and rearranged and arranged again my stack of cards, I kept drifting, mentally, into the fetal position, marveling that the gift of wordskill can morph into manacled ankles before you can say, “A speculative flash piece in narrative form exploring mortality, confused identity, and ruptured familial ties, with metaphors and analogies using water and blood.”

I’ve conjured countless rationales and justifications in this life—I am the much youngest of three kids, so to make up for my relative lack of strength and stature, I mastered early the arts of argument and persuasion. Which is to say that I can stack the index cards any which way and then explain why the order is absolutely right, and by the third attempt (of many, many) I was overwhelmed by my own spin. The goal is to get behind the justifications to the truth, and that’s something I’ve always struggled with, regardless of context. In other words: I’m not done. And wish me luck.

2)        How does my work differ from others of its genre?

In one of my MFA semester evaluations, my mentor began his characterization of my work like this: “Claire does not write realist fiction.” I was taken aback, and at our end-of-semester meeting I asked—with some pique—why he’d said that. He gave me that “Oh dear, she’s slipped into her native Russian” look, and said, “Well, Claire, because… you don’t in fact write realist fiction??” Somehow I’d read his comment as saying that my stories don’t reflect the cares and worries of real people. Of course they do, dammit. Yes, he agreed, of course they do. But they do that using satire or a sprinkling of fairy tale or the form of a product label.

We’ve seen more experimentation and weirdness in short stories over the last decade+, thanks to writers like Aimee Bender, Etgar Keret, and George Saunders, but it’s still true that the vast majority of the stories I read in litmags are written in the realist tradition. My graduation manuscript didn’t include a single story that could be called realist, though many were written in narrative form. After writing a story every day for a year, I do now have some realist shorties under my belt. And when I get the word-alchemy right, I like these stories just as much as anything else I’ve written.

Realist or not, narrative form or not, I like dark, I like funny. I like weird. Every story I write hits one or more of those notes.

3)        Why do I write what I do?

When I won a literary fellowship from the State of Maine, one of the judges commented that I give life to characters who “live in the margins.” I hadn’t realized that before, but it’s true. I write about these people because no one will notice them if I don’t. I put them in short stories because I’m completely in love with the form, so much so that I have to remind myself to read novels.

I hate to sound over-serious nor too full of myself, but I am both of those things, so here it is: I write odd, dark, often darkly funny short stories because I want so badly to tell the truth, and pushing art beyond the boundaries of what feels “normal” gets me to that truth well and fast. I could write a hundred essays (and hopefully someday I will) but the whole lot of them couldn’t possibly tell as much truth as I can reveal in one small piece of fiction. Isn’t that just the sort of preposterous thing sniffy, pashmina-wearing writers say? But I truly believe it. At the very same time that I know it’s preposterous, I believe it. And now someone needs to give me a pashmina, because I’ll never buy one for myself.

4)        How does your writing process work?

I noticed long ago that I both love and despise routine. I crave order and feel comforted by rules and frames, but once I know the rules and frames, once I’ve had to bow to order, I begin to chafe. And I will rebel, it’s just a matter of time and style. So with regard to my writing practice, I establish order and then plan for the rebellion.

When I find myself unable to write immediately upon waking, I’ll shift my writing time to after lunch. When I begin to hate my post-lunch commitment, I’ll save writing time for after dinner. Deep into my Daily Shorty year, every month or so for about a week, I addressed my mental exhaustion by giving myself whole days to do everything but writing, which meant I didn’t start writing until 10:00 PM or even much later. I would sneak up on myself and then have to take a headlong rush at the story before I became too incoherent to write. So whatever the context, I just keep adapting to the new me, with ever-changing targets and ever-evolving strategies.

As for the writing itself, I am a vertical writer who has learned how to incorporate some horizontal habits. And I’ll mention one other element of my process because I’ve discovered that it surprises people when they hear it, yet I can’t understand why: I never consider a story finished (well, as finished as possible, anyway, which is more how I see a story that I think is ready for submission) until I have gone through that final draft for the purpose of examining every single individual word. Is this word necessary? Yes, I think it is. Can you justify that belief? Yes, I think I can. Okay, how about this word? You know, now that you ask me, I have to say that this word is unnecessary. There, it’s gone. Okay, how about this word? And so on.

~

And so ends my part of this tour! Next week, my friend and fellow alum Stephanie Friedman will talk about her process. Stephanie writes short stories that start off quiet but then sneak up on you before you’re quite prepared, which makes the surprise revelation or action or image particularly satisfying. As I’ve told her a couple of times, her work reminds me of Grace Paley, and I don’t see how a writer can ever go wrong doing that. She’s also an astute reader, a generous teacher, a loving wife and mom, and just an all-around thoroughly fantastic person. Here’s a page devoted to the Daily Shorty week Stephanie did with me. Her bio:

Stephanie Friedman is the program director of the Writer’s Studio, a continuing education program in creative writing at the University of Chicago Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. Her work has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, and online for Hunger MountainBlood Orange Review, and Literary Mama. She holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MA in English Language and Literature from the University of Chicago.

Stephanie intends to post Saturday, March 15, here.

My friend Cheryl Wilder will do a post for this tour, as well, here. And I particularly enjoyed Diane Lefer’s and Laurie Cannady’s stops on the tour. Happy reading!

Art + Story?

5 Jan

In keeping with my practice during my year of story, I haven’t always blogged a shorty this week on the same day I wrote it, but once I write the post that goes with the shorty, I date it to match the date I composed the draft. I’m writing this post now late evening January 7, after having written my final story for this Daily Shorty week, so my reflections here are influenced by a few days of hindsight. In any case, one question that came up for me this week is whether doing arts and crafts feeds my writing—a friend recently asked me that question and I was surprised to find that I had no answer. On Sunday January 5, I had an appointment first thing in the morning (when I usually take my first crack at the day’s story), then spent the vast majority of the day working on a craft project, something like 8 or 9 hours. Then I wrote the day’s shorty just before bed. My answer, for that day, is no, my other creative work didn’t feed my writing. I was tired and drained from focusing on my project for so many hours and I’m sure that didn’t help me with story-brain. But in general I have to believe that doing anything creative feeds not only other creative pursuits but our spirit otherwise. Do I have to believe it because I sense that it’s true or just because it suits me to believe so? Not sure. Anyway, I’m surprised to find that although I struggled to come up with the day’s shorty, definitely regretted all those hours spent on something else, and felt no great love for the writing that night, I’m pleased with it now. It’s very short and has a nice little punch at the end. A submittable keeper maybe not, but I have some affection for it. Success!


Working Title: “Tearless”
1st Sentence: He’s seen her cry over a fallen cake, a broken shoelace, the first birdsong of the season.
Favorite Sentence: She once teared up over a fortune cookie and she has been brought to shuddering sobs, twice in his presence, by a nature show.
Word Length: 123


A Day To Bundle Up and Write!

2 Jan

imageSerious sub-zero weather, today. I had to come back in from shoveling snow after only 45 minutes of fun because I realized that my toes had moved from ordinary uncomfortably cold to really hurting. That kind of cold is sneaky. Most of the day I was fortunate to be inside, peering at the falling snow and windblown branches while I wordsmithed this little shorty. I hope I always remember to be grateful to be a writer.


Working Title: “Just So”
1st Sentence: If here and inclined to comment, Saul would agree.
Favorite Sentence: The William Tell Overture was “too full of itself,” even if that was the point, still, just… too.
Word Length: 195


Here’s a recent picture of our house. I was trying to get a good photo of that tree covered in ice to the right, the sun sneaking through… anyway. That was just a few days ago and already we have twice the snow. I have no idea where we’re going to put it all.

How is writing a story like a cat?

31 Dec

Or like buying a house? Like moving? How is writing a story like shoveling snow?

photo-3

Tillie and Willa

I would like to say that I have been pondering these questions in the last months of 2013, while my husband and I delighted in our two new kittens, now regal young ladies of 9 months, while we found the house of our dreams and somehow managed to acquire it, while we lugged badly packed boxes and overstuffed duffel bags and the movers hoisted our bed on a rope from the front yard and through the bedroom window. How is writing a story like settling a snow shovel under a foot of fluffy snow, then tipping the shovel and pushing the snow across the paved driveway and into the growing snowbank, leaving a narrow black strip of sugar-powdered asphalt in its place?

My final quarter of 2013 was about cats and e-mails to the realtor and corralling old tax forms and blanching at heating bills and calling the gas company and tipping the movers and learning how to shovel snow (in Maine we have always before been renters) and, above all, about measuring. Oh, the measuring. We own 4 measuring tapes and they live in as many rooms. My final quarter was about the stuff of story but not writing story. So I will have to find out how writing a story is like a cat in 2014.

Happy New Year! To my writing friends, happy writing and submitting. It’s going to be a glorious year.

In Defense of Scribble

23 Jul
A scribbled page in one of the notebooks I carried around during my Daily Shorty year.

A scribbled page in one of the notebooks I used during my Daily Shorty year.

I’ve been brainstorming names for a writing project, and one of the words I played with is “scribble.” Not a good idea, said my husband, “Scribbling is bad.” The word “scribble,” said my friends, should never be applied to a professional enterprise. Nor, for that matter, to an adult one. I expected my smart sounding board to object to the word because of course I know just as well how it’s used. Yet scribbling is such an important part of the writing process.

If, unlike most writers, you are an excellent manager of your time, and you maintain a daily writing practice, say every morning from 6:00 to 8:00, you will, of course, reap benefits. But if you reserve your writing energy for that timeframe alone, you will miss opportunities to spice up your stories. Sure, Scribble doesn’t always dot her i’s and cross her t’s. Scribble badly needs a haircut, and a manicure wouldn’t hurt. But these are surface concerns. Harried, slovenly, too impulsive Scribble earns her right place in the writer’s work life by capturing inspiration in the fast-food line, on the stretch mat at the gym, in the produce section of the grocery store. Just caught yourself staring at a really bad polyester dress from Mrs. Brady’s closet? Did I hear you laugh because the guy in the car ahead of you ordered his burger in the cadence and volume of a Barnum & Bailey ringmaster? That’s Scribble-worthy.

Scribble rescues your story when you’re at a friend’s house for dinner, and between the salad and the salmon, you realize exactly what drives your hero to throw that jar of raspberry jam at the kitchen wall… but your keyboard didn’t come to dinner. Your purse containing that tiny pad of paper and pen, whispers Scribble, is in the foyer. Or you could use your phone to take notes, right, that fancy phone you use for GPS, for restaurant reviews, to check your e-mail? Maybe. But I’m convinced that pushing buttons that in turn print perfect letters neatly across your screen does not access the same bubbling mess—sweet mess, spicy mess—that comes from your scribbling pen, hand to page.

Professionals scribble. Adults scribble. The more scribbling the better. But I get it. Scribble doesn’t have a driver’s license nor a checking account. Scribble wears the same shirt three days in a row. Because she has no idea how to show a little decorum, Scribble will come only to those of us who don’t mind her bare feet and scraped knees. Okay. Until we play Pygmalion, dear Scribble—will you consider bangs?—you will have to tiptoe in the margins. But then again, I think that’s just how Scribble likes it.

Daily Shorty Snapshot

8 May

Story Facts IIt’s going to take me a while to process this experience and catch up on all the pages I owe—a ravenous, demanding beast, this site. For now, some preliminary Daily Shorty stats.

1: Number of times my body has forgotten that I’ve completed the challenge. Wow, only once! I expected that to happen more. Apparently relief sugars the brain better than habit.

2: Daily Shorties accepted for publication. A few are out but it’s been a while since I’ve submitted, so, note to self….

5: Days passed before I wanted to work on this site.

8: Writer-Athletes who have taken on the Daily Shorty challenge for one week. (Thank you for that term, Suzanne!)

1: Number of weeks before I woke up with the urge to write. This morning I began my post-Daily Shorty almost-daily writing practice.

1.75: Number of days I enjoyed a full sense of satisfaction and contentment after having written my final story. At around 1:00 pm on Thursday, May 2, my inner voice said, “Shouldn’t you be doing something productive? You call yourself a writer and yet here you sit, doing nothing. You embarrass me.” And, so, proof that the inner voice will never be satisfied. 365 stories in a row but the inner voice wants more. Let the record show that this happened a full 1.25 days later than I expected. Victory!