Jul 04
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The 32 Drawings

wwvhdrawingsSheila Kennedy's 32 drawings for my next book were ready Thursday and we met at a coffee shop and when I suggested a change on one drawing Sheila right there took her pen and drew in a few wonderful lines that both snared and reproduced reality, and changed everything. I marveled at her skill and at the way her practiced eye must see the essential in every material thing, in every shape and being. Rarely do I get to see artists besides writers in the act of creation. The word "awesome" was really warranted. I brought the drawings home and admired them and the vastness of her achievement all at once. And was amazed that it was my text and initiative that helped bring them into the world. Watching the artist at work helped me realize that the act of creation is just as awesome when writers do it -- common as it seems to those of us who write.
Jul 01
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How Not To Begin Your Meditative Essay

Old, dumb chestnuts guaranteed to exasperate your reader (and how they do that. So be aware, and do better than these):

  • "While having my second cup of coffee...." (indicates excess leisure; annoys readers who by necessity wake to horrible alarm clock, rush the kids to school, rush to work)
  • "our late breakfast of coffee and blood oranges..." (indicates excess leisure and money-fueled hyperestheticism (the oranges being rare and expensive; the casual reference to "blood," the implied reference to Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning"), and, lucky you, you probably have a two-income household)
  • "Walking in the desert wilderness I was thinking about..." (indicates a panoply of luxuries: solitude, leisure to think, time for aimless walking, and placement in a remote quiet setting)
  • "Woke up this morning..." (it's an essay, not a blues song, honey)
  • "My mother" / My father" (no one cares; get to the point) (I once read a litmag that had four pieces in it all beginning with the words "My father...")
  • "Sometimes, reality strikes with the force of a tidal wave" (you're just figuring that out?)
  • "I find myself saying frequently to my students..." (wow, you've got a teaching job? lucky you)
  • "My father would sit with his feet up on his desk..." (your father had a desk?)
  • "My senior year..." (better, start out "In 1985," or whatever year it was. Nobody cares about your senior year, but some readers might give a hoot about 1985 as a year)
  • "I learned early on..." (you're showing, not telling)
Jun 29
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Screening Test: Is The Applicant a "Writer"?

Employability/Disability Assessment (Instructions to screener: Check all applicable items)

This applicant:

writes for hours without being compelled to
calls word-processing "creative writing"
ignores housework
buys books
reads Middle English
asserts that the 18th century is important
believes beauty is truth
believes publication confers validation
claims his/her condition is congenital and "fun"
thinks 12 percent is fair and 15 percent is generous
feels uncertain about the line between poetry and prose
likes closed captioning
will struggle for an hour to get the "1" off manuscript page 1
thinks it would be "great" to live alone in a lighthouse for a year

Jun 28
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Tally for 2008

Completed: About 23 poems. Drafted This Year: 18 poems, 0 essays. Submitted: 14 poems. Rejected: 11 poems. Poetry Readings: 2; Prose Readings: 1; Anthologies Appeared In: 1. Contests Entered: 2; Prizes Won: 0. Workshops/Seminars Attended: 18. Poetry Readings Attended: 9; Submissions of Book Manuscript: 2; Rejections of Book Manuscript: 1. New Books Purchased: About 20. New Friends Made: 15 to 20 (a really great year). Friends Self-Publishing First Books: 6; Friends Publishing First Books: 5; Friends Publishing Second Books: 1; Friends Making a Living at Writing: 1. I don't make a living. However, as you can see, my life is fabulously rich.
Jun 28
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After Walter Bargen's Critique

Walter Bargen’s critique of a poem I brought to the St. Louis Poetry Center Workshop shifted my philosophy of revision. He said, You use too many words. Get it going with the first line. Make sure that in every line something happens. Shorten your sentences. Cut every word and phrase not absolutely needed. With these in mind I revised and think I improved the poem. Its first two stanzas will illustrate. See what you think:

Before:

Seekers and pilgrims leave rosaries and coins
at each of the seven grottoes engineered
like sand castles, frenzied
in conception and scale,

each begetting another, life-sized, more sensual:
a stone tent for the slumbering plaster disciples;
for the satiny skins of the plaster Pietá
a stone canopy inlaid with bottle glass and scallop shells;

After:

Seekers and pilgrims leave rosaries, coins.
The seven grottoes engineered
like sand castles, frenzied
in conception and scale,

shelter strangely sensual scenes.
Plaster disciples slumber
beneath a canopy of masonry
chased with beach glass and scallop shells,

Jun 28
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The Instant Leper

Small mental-health tip: Never offer the information that you are a writer.

I have learned to tell strangers at bus stops or family parties that I am a webmaster, or, if I really want to hear them talk, I say I’m a teacher (not a professor). “Teacher” elicits all sorts of commentary and memories, plus the “Guess What I Teach” game. Everyone always guesses right: I’m an English teacher. I fail to see what is wrong with looking like one.

But when you tell a stranger, “I’m a writer,” you'll get frosted or flummoxed by one of these:

  • “A writer, eh? Ya know, my life could be a book. Whoo-ee! I’ll tell it to you and you can write it.”
  • “What do you write?” (Disappointment or disapproval will follow regardless of your answer)
  • “Have you ever heard of this book called (Dune, Twilight, The Lovely Bones, Ball Four)?”
  • “Have you published anywhere I might have read it?”
  • “So you get to sit home all day and write.”
  • “My daughter writes poetry. It helps so much with her depression.”
I once told a talented but unschooled writer (think Chuck Palahniuk), unemployed for two years, that Human Resources staffs were likely giving him the bum’s rush because he just had to say in his cover letter, “But what I really am is a writer.” Might as well say, “I’m a leper.”
Jun 28
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The Token

I received this pendant, set with rubies, as a Christmas gift. Thinking highly of the giver, I decided last night to put it beneath my pillow so as to get it "in tune" with me. Before I fell asleep it gave me an idea for a set of poems. Then it woke me up after 3 hours and said, "Get up and write some poems," and gave me a first line. It also wrote a poem about itself. Whatever works in the name of creativity is all good.
Jun 28
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EBooks on the Rise

Check this out: There's now an alternative to Amazon.com's Kindle reading pod, and you can get it (it's a Sony) at Target. E-Books are gaining in popularity. Oprah likes the Kindle. The average Kindle buyer is 55-64 years old, believe it or not. (Younger folks read on their I-phones, apparently.) Follow the link for complete juicy details about E-Books and reading pods in the technology column at nytimes.com.
Jun 28
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Fiction Writing Tips: The Rules of Three

Drab? Unexciting? "Shallow"? My short fiction was. As so much of it is! Why?

The questions of art are big, but the answers are small. Story writers, try these (my original discoveries):

1. Give three traits to every character, including the walk-ons.
2. Take your main characters to three distinctly different settings.
3. Have no more than three main characters.
Jun 28
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Your Skill Set and Power Blouse

Whatever you write -- know how to write something else. That's how I got lunch with the publisher mentioned in the previous blog. I know how to write public-relations materials such as press releases. The publisher wanted me for my "skill set."All writers should be able to write more than one type of thing. I told the publisher I also knew where to send the press releases and what to do after that. Normally I hate the phrase "skill set" -- it's so 1980s "corporate." But mine works in my favor. No 1980s bow-tie power blouse is necessary.

Know-how -- in something other than creative writing -- got me the face-to-face meeting with a publisher who incidentally happened to be looking for a book ms that sounded rather like mine.
Jun 28
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Dont' Be Modest

The most overrated virtue in a writer: modesty. Especially when opportunity doesn't just knock -- it clubs you upside the head.

Last time I sent my latest book ms. out was February; the rejection (fourth) came in August. I sighed and let the manuscript rot. This past week I had lunch with a publisher. We weren't there to talk about my books, but the publisher described books the press was looking for, saying, "But who has a book like that?"

"I do," I boldly ventured for the first time in my life, "and it's finished, about 35,000 words; it has this, and this. . ." Mmmm, let me see it, said the publisher. I hate to think I almost said nothing -- out of misplaced modesty. It needed only to be printed out (pat myself on the back). Off it went into the mail today.
Jun 28
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Get Born, Dude

Acquaintance, perhaps 20 years younger than I, has finished his first novel (writing it, not reading it), and isn't sure if it's good or saleable. He said he gave it to five friends to read. One friend read it; no word from the other four. He expressed anxiety. What I saw was a writer being born. It ain't pretty.

Picking up the forceps, I said, "Why don't you hire a professional editor to read it and give you feedback?"

He said, "But that's so counterintuitive!"

Clamping the forceps around his head, I said, "Business is counterintuitive. But business is part of writing. We can be 90 percent artist, but have to be 10 percent businessperson."

Then I decided I didn't have the right to yank on him; he might yet be 10 to 20 years away from being ready to be born as a (professional) writer. But if he's ready, he will:

-budget to pay for professional advice.
-not be scared to learn a professional's opinion. In fact he will be eager for it.
-realize he needs help, that he can't do it alone or with just one or two writer friends his own age.
-see that I am not trying to drag him down to my (less talented) level; I'm just telling him something I learned.