Oct 21

Is Blogging a Waste?

Writers are often told they "need a blog" to "get known" or promote themselves or their book, but I find that it doesn't work that way. It can't work that way when every writer has a blog and every blog has a writer. I've been writing two blogs, including this one, since 2007, and for various reasons and under various names have started 5 others, 3 of which still serve a purpose, and admit I spend a lot of time on them; if not writing, then reading them, because I'm fascinated by what I -- or my pseudonyms, because only two blogs run under my real name -- have written over the years. Some the blogs include photographs or videos. I write them only when I'm inspired to do it and work at making them good.

Should the energy going into blog posts have gone into poems or other literary work? And I realize that isn't a question. A writer should write whatever he or she likes. I'm far more eager to write blog posts and articles than I am to write poems that, like children, need not only to be born but need to be brought up and disciplined like a ballerina and then sent out to flutter and starve and freeze in a blizzard of poems, a wintry world in which everyone is his own favorite poet. Or a poem is like a single chip in a casino, one bought and played at great emotional expense, while knowing the house always wins. And you know what? Nobody cares what you write but you. The future of authorhood is everyone writing his or her own book and being its only reader. Technology is making that truer by the minute. And truer than ever are those old chestnuts that the only reason to write is because you enjoy doing it, or if you are driven to do it, or if you get paid for it. If you blog to "get known" or "get your work out there," that's what's futile now.
May 08

Good Books with Not-Good Covers

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Call me picky, but here's how I see these book covers. The darkest two of these are poetry books: wonderful poetry books. One is self-published and one is from a chapbook press. The dark covers do hint at the type of poetry within, and there is nothing wrong with dark covers, but the titles and author names are also dark, and in one case the title and author name is in script typeface, and undersized, and barely visible. CivilWarLand is a great book of short stories, but its cover is too busy. With its photographic image, multiple typeface colors (red, yellow, white), the orange oval, and the black sidebar with reverse (white) type, the hardest kind of type to read, this cover is a lot of work for the reader's eyes. You get tired even before you open the book. The publisher, a big commercial publisher, figured this out, because later printings have a different cover. A university press commissioned this folksy painting for this book of really fine short stories, on the right. The painting included the title and author's name. That's a baby in a violin case at the bottom, but it looks like The Scream to me. I would have a hard time buying a book with such an amateurish cover although the book is a prizewinner (see the golden sticker) and truly a gem. The middle book is self-published (I've removed the author name) and its red-hot cover and stark, type-only simplicity is supposed to entice me to open the book. It says it's a novel. It'd be nice if it said what kind of novel; the red and yellow, although they tried, were not enough to convey to me that it was a serial-murderer mystery. (That red isn't "blood red"; it's Soviet Union flag red and yellow.) The cover's oddness may have caught my eye but I would never take the book from the shelf; obviously a self-published effort by someone who doesn't know that covers have to inform readers, just a little, as well as attract their attention.
Apr 25

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.
Apr 25

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!
Apr 25

About the Cover Artist

First copy arrived Saturday. Went on amazon.com today (10/15/2007). 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 www.natura-mystica.info 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.
Apr 25

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.")
Apr 25

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.