Nov 12

A Writer with $10

A $10 Target gift card, my reward for taking a survey, sent me to Target to look around. I intended to spend this mad money on my heart's deepest desire. Unsure of what that was, I went to Electronics seeking a small battery-operated radio, like a transistor radio, to have in case of a power outage. The clerks showed me clock-radios-- red-eyed black boxes that work neither as clocks nor radios and emit, at unpredictable hours, noises seemingly piped directly from Hell. They also showed me a radio that one straps to the arm and jogs with. Not my heart's desire.

I browsed the kitchen tools, hoping to replace the lemon zester lost while carrying utensils to class to use as inspirations for poetry. Not there. Longing for coffee I thought I might spend my gift card at the Starbuck's inside of Target, but the card may not be spent there. I looked in vain for a ceramic pour-over coffee funnel in Kitchen Appliances. Then I saw Hello Kitty merchandise and got an idea. I treasure a Hello Kitty pocket notebook, a gift from a student who overheard me admitting that I dig Hello Kitty. I log mileage in that notebook, and still have it. Seeking that notebook I saw others and suddenly realized that my heart's deepest longings, from the time I was small, are for office supplies. Office supplies are my second body! My second mind!

Beside the stacks of notebooks I saw racks of pens, Bic and PaperMate and a knockoff brand, sold in packaged platoons of three, five, 10 or 20. I couldn't recall when I'd last bought pens. My supply came free from auto-repair shops and health fairs, but these, because of their frailty, soon became invalids--pens that don't work although I keep them hoping they will. So I spent $10 for one very good, pink-barreled Dr. Grip gel pen and a package of five fat blue Bics Pro Plus. I took them home--they have no idea how lucky they are--opened their packages and wrote "Love" with each one, making sure that the first word born from each was an auspicious one.
Feb 18

I Have a Dream for Writers

Feb. 18, 2012

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the lowest point in the history of American writers.

Two score and nine years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, gave a speech known as “I Have a Dream.” A great statesman and great writer, he spoke of another American who had lived a hundred years before, also a great statesman and great writer. Their speeches and writings are read and studied to this day and remain beacons of light and hope for millions in America and the world.

But the tragic fact is that the American writer of our time lives on a mental diet of worry, doubts, and wishful thinking. While new communications outlets multiply, the professional writer, journalist and creative writer live on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity, saying they have no work, they can’t make themselves work, that there is no point in writing. Fifty years later, writing seems to have lost its power to move the writer or the reader, and writers languish in the corners of American society, which gladly lets them languish there. So I have come here to discuss our appalling condition.

In a sense I have come here to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And it was later agreed that among these rights was the right to a free public education that would allow the nation’s citizens to read and understand the nation’s basic documents and discover all the rights, the history and the literature they were heir to.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation to ensure public literacy and reasonable mastery of written language, America has given public education a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that every school district is too short of funds to have good schools and enough teachers to teach reading and writing. We refuse to believe that every newspaper and magazine and employer is too short of funds to pay writers what they are worth. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in those great vaults that hold plenty of money for entertainers, politicians, the insurance industry, the oil industry, the defense industry, and drug companies, none of which could function without writers to put words in their mouths or on their websites.

So we have come to cash this check -- the check that will give all citizens upon demand the education they were promised. We have also come to this hallowed spot, the printed page, to remind America that the matter is fiercely urgent. America’s schools produce masses of functional illiterates and dropouts, and their school boards tell us nothing further can be done. Some enroll in America’s colleges, in which I taught for twenty-five years, where technical, business, or athletic skills are favored over learning how to write and speak. Teachers of college composition find their students painfully unsure about their writing skills, and unable and ashamed to communicate their needs. Teachers are expected to give inflated grades to students who cannot write a coherent paragraph in their native language, students who might, if given a grade of C, try to get the teacher dismissed or start shooting.

Those who never learn to read and write well are slaves--but not to those who do read and write well, because those two almost never meet. They are slaves to those who ensure that those two will never meet by demeaning both and instilling in them contempt for one another.

Writers, this is no time to engage in the luxury of saying “Writers can’t ever make a living,” or “Only chumps pay for content,” or “People don’t read anymore,” and resign ourselves to doing something less. Now is the time to see the doors of opportunity opening to all who are gifted with writing ability, disciplined and driven to follow it as an honorable profession. Writers, it is your choice whether you write to inform, educate, inspire or entertain, but never should it be your choice to mislead. One day you must account to God or to yourself for what you did with your gift. You are fate’s finest instrument.

Writers, contradict those who say that mastery of the English language is an indulgence or a privilege or very common. It is not. Literacy is the right on which all other rights depend. The powerful of America know this, and that is why they shut their doors against you and will you not to thrive. You have heard about the power of the pen. Significantly, that phrase declines to identify the source of power as the one who holds and guides the pen. You may be poor. You may be unhappy. You might not even write very well. But you should never be deterred or ashamed or afraid to act because it might result in error. You and your fellow writers are a source of power and light, kin to Lincoln and King. Take courage during this time that literacy is low, joblessness is high, and the publishing industry is in chaos. It looks bad. Yet this is the moment to act because you can only do better.

It is fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the writer at this important juncture between printed and digital communication. The year 2012 is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope writers will now be contented to blog and tweet will have a rude awakening as the nation continues business as usual. One day the hunger for knowledge and understanding, so basic to humankind, will outgrow the pleasure of passing one's time unencumbered by the thought process. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America when the pleasure of mindlessness wears off like silverplate on brass, when more Americans than in 1963 are homeless, jobless and don’t have enough to eat.

But there is something I must say to my fellow American writers who stand on the threshold peeking into the halls of power, wondering if we can market our way in. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and cynicism. Let us reject hucksterism and cheap shortcuts to "getting known" when our goal should be work of such quality that employers and readers will seek us out.

We must always conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not be lulled into passive acceptance of industry norms and the social opprobrium directed at us. Again and again we must rise and meet institutional exploitation and poor-mouthing with soul force and confidence. If we can't get published we now have cheap and free means to publish ourselves. Our marvelous new militancy must not lead us to distrust the publishing or communications industries, and academia, because many of us depend on them to make meager livings as freelancers, adjuncts, temporaries, and contract workers. It is our fault. It is our fault because we agreed to write for nothing and the next writer and the next were asked to write for nothing. We have defaulted on our own self-respect and should not be surprised that we receive little respect in return. We believe that businesses, editors, agents and institutions control our destiny. Their destiny is indeed tied up with ours. But understand that it is not we who depend on them; the truth is that they are dependent on us, and not just for manuscripts and money but for our creative ideas and our capacity to inspire.

And as we begin to walk, supporting the tottering publishing industry that was once so eager to shut us out that it refused unagented submissions or works that challenged the views of their stockholders, we must pledge to look at one another and understand that a writer is not a lone figure in an ivory tower, as that great American myth would have it, but part of a vast community growing vaster--although they call us the unknowns, the unpublished, the unemployed, the unwanted. We can never be satisfied as long as there is a talented writer too poorly educated to fulfill his or her potential, or a talented writer who thinks that survival depends on work corrosive to the spirit. Writing is our mission and our service to humanity. There is nothing wrong with it or with us. We will not be satisfied until a writer can be a writer. We will fight for the independence of literature. We will demand value for our labor. We will not be satisfied with less and will use every instrument to achieve it. We will not be bought by sponsors. We will not be embedded. We will not sell ourselves short. We will not allow ourselves and our profession to be demeaned and disparaged. We are fate’s finest instruments. We are truth's finest instruments. We are not less than those those who lie down at night saying, "Thank heaven that no one in America wrote or read the truth today."

I am not unmindful that some of you have become writers out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow cells. Some of you have come from areas where your dedication to truth left you persecuted and brutalized. You have weathered censorship and exile and depression and death threats. You have suffered for your creativity. All writers have been told that unearned suffering can be redemptive, a kind of honor. It is your choice to decide whether that is true and what your suffering accomplishes. The citizens of the United States of America are guaranteed freedom to write and publish, perhaps without honor, but also without retribution. We are proud of this. And we intend this day to take advantage of it, and to reclaim honor for our profession, if not for ourselves then for the writers of the future, who will have to be bolder than we were.

Writers who cannot concede a need to act should go back to scouring Writer’s Digest and attending conferences on using social media to market and promote themselves until they can admit that those petty, discomfiting tactics almost never work.

I have a dream that writers one day will not be judged not by whom they know but by what they do and how well they do it.

I have a dream that one day children will sit down together, read the same news or the same novel, and assume the freedom to assess, discuss and act on their reading and to write about it.

I have a dream that one day our news industry will be transformed into an instrument of truth and justice.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that writers will one day will not brawl for a slot on the bestseller list or on the faculty, but as colleagues will dedicate a portion of themselves to the advancement not only of their own interests but that of the whole profession.

I have a dream that American writers will one day value themselves not because they won prizes but because each writer, whether journalist, novelist, poet, letter-writer, scholar, or student performs a service to humanity, a service of perception, of a kind no one else ever born will ever give.

This is my hope. This is the faith with which I return to my writing. Have this faith and with me hew out of the mountain of despair a landmark of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform a nation and a profession in desperate need of transformation. With this faith we should study together, struggle together, support one another, stand up for our rights together, knowing we are fate’s finest instruments and our fate begins now.
Oct 08

Sic Transit Gloria

I'm an elder now among writers. The younger ones who have the positions similar to what I had, or used to want, do not know me, and haven't heard or read anything I've written; in fact they're not sure I am published at all. I haunt the fringes at readings or workshops, but what they see is a middle-aged woman, a local, who never published in Shenandoah or snagged a big prize, at least that they know about, or any honor that still matters. Maybe I was somebody once, but I made mistakes, missed the boat, and now I'm a member of the old-school. That's how it goes, the way the cookie crumbles, sic transit gloria mundi; anyway, their own lives occupy them quite completely, as they ought to. I have been where they are now.

I have learned that a middle-aged female no matter how distinguished isn't granted that halo of success and prominence the younger are sure that they will have when they reach middle age. Rather, the middle-aged female is a nonentity. The goosey voices of her kind get tuned out. People remark only on the way she dresses: a too-exotic scarf, a funereal black suit, maybe boots (groan), or microfiber flats that too clearly accommodate her bunions or bunionettes. But the clothes might as well be empty. She is an embarrassment; it is feared that her nothingness is contagious. That she might have accomplished notable things doesn't matter. Her fee might be twice what you make in a month. She might even be Secretary of State. But no halo.

It's a gleaming platinum halo; I have seen it around others, around the young, gifted, royal, and hopeful.

I wear it in my hair.

Jun 27

Chapbook or Magazine Publication? Which is Best?

Real life-question: Poet has a sheaf of excellent poems, all unpublished. Should she skip ahead & enter them as a manuscript in a chapbook competition -- or first try to print individual poems in journals, and THEN do the chapbook thing?

Answer: No journal wants to publish poems that appeared first in a chapbook. I'd try first to publish individual poems in as many local print journals as possible, setting a deadline of one year; then -- no matter what the result -- I would make a chapbook ms. Local journals will further your work much faster than will national publications. How so? See next blog entry. Send to 'em all. Don't enter contests, just send the poems. And send simultaneously!

Think you have some good poems? Get a bunch of them out to your local journals by Dec. 15!
Jun 27

Hell Freezes Over; Publisher Gives Away Books

The late Carol Bly wrote a probing, wholly adult textbook on short-fiction writing, called The Passionate, Accurate Story (1990, Milkweed Editions), always my choice as the fiction text for my Introduction to Creative Writing course. Heather Clark of the Washington University Bookstore told me that Milkweed had 5 copies left, not enough to fill my order for this fall, and it wasn't printing more, but would send those 5 if I wanted; plus:

"[Milkweed] cannot technically sell the books to us since it has been declared out of print. They are going to 'donate' them to us. I cannot charge a student for a book that was donated to us. So I gave her my shipping number so we can be charged for the shipping. I will contact you when the books arrive and give them to you to distribute to your students, or for your students to share. If you have any questions, let me know."

Free books for my students, direct from the publisher!? What a delight! For such a great book! (It's available used.) Ms. Bly (1930-2007; pictured) would have loved this! I'd be a fool to ask questions!
May 08

Dead Ends For Your Creative Writing

If you want quality readers such as literary agents, Pushcart Prize judges, famous writers, and Best American Poetry anthologists among your readers:

1. Don't submit to a brand-new literary journal. They don't have subscribers, and their newbie editors don't know enough to nominate their contents for Pushcart or other prizes.
2. Don't submit exclusively to journals edited by students in MFA programs. Because the editors change yearly, their contents are unpredictable and can be uneven, and because of this they are not taken very seriously. In fact these journals are referred to in the aggregate as "MFA rags."
3. If you win prizes from your local literary organization's contests and get that good work printed in the awards-ceremony program, or on the organization's website, that may be the last daylight your prizewinning work will ever see. Some litmag editors consider that work to have been "already published."

I think some MFA rags are wonderful, but if you're career-minded, learn to think differently. The above information from a seminar I attended last Saturday on poetry publishing.
May 05

Showered with Jewels

Proof that great ideas DO often strike in the shower! A news brief in the June 2007 Ladies Home Journal quotes recent research: "'Our skin is designed to naturally administer the right proportions of molecules to have a beneficial, stimulating effect on our thinking,' explains Frank Rice, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience. . ." Credit your endorphins -- the stuff that gives you your natural highs, like those you get from exercising or massage. Or maybe from hugs. I read somewhere that for maximum creativity, you need 12 hugs a day.

What's a few wet footprints on the carpet compared to inspiration? Each gift of sudden inspiration comes only once, to only one person. You don't want to lose it. Even Emily Dickinson thought, " 'Twill keep," but it won't -- and you don't want to have to say along with her, ruefully, "The Gem was gone -- /And now, an Amethyst remembrance/ Is all I own."* Get out of the shower, out of bed, or pull over the car, and write down that idea or first line. I do, even if it's a bother. My personal research says that you have two or three minutes before the gift turns to vapor. (Writers do receive other gifts -- such as book ideas -- that are less perishable.)

To be an artist is to be a channel or gateway for creative power. Enjoy your appointment to the welcoming committee!

*"I held a Jewel in my fingers--" (#245)
Jan 22

Envy

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.
Jan 17

What Poetry Was Meant to Do

From Wikipedia. I got a genuine thrill reading this, and hope you do too:

When the book was first published, Whitman was fired from his job at the Department of the Interior after Secretary of the Interior James Harlan read it and said he found it very offensive.Poet John Greenleaf Whittier was said to have thrown his 1855 edition into the fire.Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote, "It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote 'Leaves of Grass,' only that he did not burn it afterwards." Critic Rufus Wilmot Griswold reviewed Leaves of Grass in the November 10, 1855, issue of The Criterion, calling it "a mass of stupid filth" and categorized its author as a filthy free lover. Griswold also suggested, in Latin, that Whitman was guilty of "that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians", one of the earliest public accusations of Whitman's homosexuality. Griswold's intensely negative review almost caused the publication of the second edition to be suspended.Whitman included the full review, including the innuendo, in a later edition of Leaves of Grass.

On March 1, 1882, Boston district attorney Oliver Stevens wrote to Whitman's publisher, James R. Osgood, that Leaves of Grass constituted "obscene literature". Urged by the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice . . .Stevens demanded the removal of the poems "A Woman Waits for Me" and "To a Common Prostitute", as well as changes to "Song of Myself", "From Pent-Up Aching Rivers", "I Sing the Body Electric", "Spontaneous Me", "Native Moments", "The Dalliance of the Eagles", "By Blue Ontario’s Shore", "Unfolded Out of the Folds", "The Sleepers", and "Faces"
.

P.S. Whitman's title Leaves of Grass was a veiled way of saying "this is trash written by a hack or unimportant person."
Jul 21

Sinister Software

There's a bit of software, in your head and mine, that boots itself up
JUST AS YOU ARE ABOUT TO FINISH.

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.
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